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Traffic signals may soon communicate with vehicles

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In 1923, Garrett Morgan, the first African-American man to own a vehicle in the city of Cleveland patented the electronic traffic light.

Nearly 100 years later, that device may communicate with the cars and trucks we drive in the name of safety.

Right now, sensors at traffic signals tell people when it’s safe to cross busy streets in East Lansing.

But one day, traffic signals may speak directly to vehicles.

Carol Flanagan is the Research Associate professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

"You can have a camera or two at an intersection that are just there. They’re part of the intersection equipment and they can detect the movements of all of the vehicles whether or not those vehicles have communication."

Say you’re sitting at a light that just turned green and a car in another direction appears to be running the red light; the signal could send you a warning!

"The more likely scenario is the information is begin captured and sent and concern messages may be sent as well or emergency – you guys are on a collision course right now!"

Flanagan says the Michigan Dept. of Transportation is already looking into this technology. However.. what your car does with the information from traffic signals will be up to automakers not the state.

"The vehicle manufacturer then kind of is most likely to control are they going to just beep at you? Which is probably the early version of this. It will beep at the driver or put a message or audio where the driver says oh wow, something bad, I need to look up, I need to look around."

Eventually Flanagan says cars may be designed to not move to avoid potential collisions. She recently presented this and other futuristic scenarios at the Michigan Traffic Safety Summit in East Lansing. So how soon will it be before you can take an autonomous vehicle, also known as an AV, to work?

"Ten years from now it’s a good bet that AV’s will be a noticeable percentage of the fleet. What is noticeable? I don’t know ten percent, 20 percent that kind of thing. So they will be seen commonly."

But she warns those automated vehicles won’t be ready to totally self-drive.

"You’ll probably still have your own vehicle. It probably will have some pretty nice crash avoidance. It will probably have automatic emergency breaking. When you get on the highway you’ll be able to push the button. And it will do a pretty good job of staying on the road and staying away from other cars without a lot of work from you."