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The traffic light gets a dazzling, 21st century makeover

The stop sign’s days look numbered, too.

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The stop light was a design inevitability. As cars grew in popularity around the turn of the 20th century, several inventors developed a glowing box filled with round, incandescent lights to tell people when to stop and go. Which is why, since the traffic signal was first installed in Cleveland in 1914, the design has gone largely unchanged.

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Yet, maybe it’s worth asking: Has that design gone unchanged because these traffic signals are a timeless design? Or have we just not thought of anything better yet?

Now, more than 100 years later, the Moscow-based design firm Art. Lebedev Studio believes that they’ve created a better alternative to the classic stop light—with a flexible design that could be expanded to metal stop signs and yield signs, too.

Their new stop light has already garnered attention from two cities in Russia, which have requested to test it in a limited capacity.

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[Image: Art. Lebedev Studio]
Instead of stacking red, yellow, and green lights on top of one another—with each light’s relative position signaling when it’s time to stop or go for color-blind drivers—the studio developed a stop light that’s one continuous panel. And so that entire panel turns red, yellow, and green.

How is this better, you may wonder. For people who see color, it’s a bigger panel. The overall signal to stop or go is more overt. For color-blind drivers, Art. Lebedev Studio added icons (an “X” for stopping, a “!” for slowing down, and an arrow to go)—a plan that seems promising but worth testing to prove out.

[Image: Art. Lebedev Studio]
However, the largest advantage to this light is what else it can do when you combine colors and iconography to convey strange or shifting rules of the road.

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[Image: Art. Lebedev Studio]
For instance, when the light is green, the stop light itself can display which directions you can drive (like you can go straight or left). It can display mixed instructions (like you’re supposed to be stopped, but you can turn right if you’d like to). It provides a countdown clock, so you know how much longer the light will be green or red. And mounted lower on a pole, it can serve as a pedestrian crossing light, complete with captivatingly smooth animations of walkers and bikers.

[Image: Art. Lebedev Studio]
Many traffic lights today handle these mixed modes (like you can go straight or left) by adding more permanent fixtures. Art. Lebedev Studio’s approach can convey more information on a single screen; and crucially, with a 5G connection, local municipalities could easily send new instructions to display during road closures and other emergencies. Imagine if a week of construction cuts a road down to a few lanes. Our current traffic lights can’t help much in this situation, so drivers must rely on other cues, like cones or barriers, to drive safely. These screens are more flexible for ever-changing driving conditions.

[Image: Art. Lebedev Studio]
These stop lights are more than a fantastical idea rendered up in Photoshop. “There are no real obstacles for building those concepts; there are several prototypes on the way for beta-testing,” writes Timur Burbaev, industrial design art director at Art. Lebedev Studio. “Nowadays, LED screen technology gets more affordable and easier to implement each year. We think that traffic lights are just stuck in development, due to some conservative regulations that need to be changed.”

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Art. Lebedev Studio does plan to both manufacturer and test these lights with interested parties in Russia. Along the way, the studio is also miniaturizing the concept and developing a sign that’s shaped more like a square, to replace the simple metal stop, yield, and other signs that live on the side of the road.

Metal signs are absolutely more cost efficient in the short term, Burbaev admits. And obviously, an electric stop sign would require power to run. “With our interactive sign, on some busy and complex road junctions, we can massively reduce the numbers of serious road accidents,” writes Burbaev. “If you take those points into account, it’s clear that screen-sign concepts can be more beneficial in a long-term perspective.”

I don’t know that I’m sold on replacing every metal sign with an LCD panel. Aside from the cost difference and the power drain, a traffic sign can last 15-30 years before being replaced. Analog signs are superb at what they do! But especially in highly congested areas, and intersections that are statistically prone to accidents, it certainly seems worth trying to do anything and everything possible to improve the infrastructure for driver and pedestrian safety.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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