Unexpected Innovation

January 3rd, 2010 17 Comments

Designed by Damjan Stanković

Designed by Damjan Stanković

Channeling Seinfeld a bit, what’s up with stop lights lately?

I don’t know much about stop lights, aside from using them, and I wouldn’t immediately think of them as a hotbed for innovation.

Well, it’s a good thing that’s not my business because I’ve seen two separate innovations related to stop lights in the last month.

The first was a story about stop lights in the Midwest with new, energy-efficient, LED bulbs. These bulbs are also low-heat, which means they haven’t been very good at melting snow that collects inside their housings, making the light difficult to see.

Not knowing what color the light is causes accidents.

Some might view this as a fail, but I see it as an area ripe for innovation. The cost savings of LED bulbs over traditional bulbs, estimated by Wisconsin to be $750,000 annually, will ensure that this problem is solved, and someone (or more likely, some company) is going to get rich on the solution.

I’d love to see this spun off as an inventor’s challenge. That would be fun to follow.

The second stop light story came via Jason Fried of 37 Signals.

It’s a design for a traffic light with a progress bar, giving the driver a visual representation of how long the light has before changing. The model is aimed at red lights, to limit emissions.

The goal is to get drivers to turn off their engines to reduce emissions.  I’m a bit skeptical about the effectiveness of that. Having lived in traffic-heavy cities, I can only imagine how angry people would be if they had to wait for drivers in front of them to turn on their cars and then go.

Bad things.

I suspect the progress bar would work just as well, if not better, for green lights.

I frequently glance at the walk lights at an intersection to tell me how much longer the green will last. Walk indicator means it’s good for a bit, no need to hurry or stop, flashing indicator means it’s almost over, don’t walk indicator means a yellow light is imminent.

It would be easier if the stop light told me this information.

On the subject of signal innovation, I love the green light speed indicators that are common in Europe. They’re not common at all here in the States; I think I saw one in Seattle. Basically, the sign lets you know how fast you need to go to catch all the green lights in a given stretch of road.

That seems like an equally green (pun!) innovation to me, since theoretically, there would be less idling at stop lights and less emissions.

Anyway, just wanted to share this weird confluence of innovation around something that seems fully baked. I guess the lesson here is that there’s always room to innovate, even on designs that have been considered mature for decades.

Find the comments.


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17 Responses to “Unexpected Innovation”

  1. Simon Cast Says:

    There are already light systems that have a count-down timer for green lights for example Turkey http://www.flickr.com/photos/simoncast/37915240

  2. oraclenerd Says:

    The countdown indicator scares me a little bit, mostly because of me (well, young me, 20 years ago).

    Say it's late at night and you are driving towards the red light, you can see the countdown timer and try to time it appropriately. You slow down just enough so that by the time you hit the intersection the light will change and you can gun it.

    From the other direction, where the light is currently green and about to turn yellow then red, comes another jerk like myself (the young jerk of course). The light changes to yellow…it's late at night, I can just cruise through this, as they pass through the intersection they can see the light turn red…and that's when they see my headlights briefly before smashing into them.

    I always thought that's one of the reason for the “blinders” on the light so the other traffic couldn't see the status of the other light (turning yellow/red, meaning theirs is about to change). I just wonder whether this countdown timer was designed by someone with no knowledge of the past and the reasons why you don't want people timing lights.

    To relate it to technology, it's like the n00b programmer deciding to go with the Entity-Attribute-Values database design…because it makes perfect sense until you get more than 12 records and you SQL grows exponentially.

  3. Jake Says:

    Sweet! That's awesome. Want.

  4. Jake Says:

    Blinders are for sun and snow protection I think. They're not completely effective against cross traffic, since you can see the light bulb illuminated from the side.

    The stated purpose of the timer is to limit emissions, and it would work for that. Although, your point is valid for what I've seen (and done) here in the US. I still say the helping drivers make all the greens by telling them what speed to go is the best solution, at least here. That green light timer in Turkey would be cool too.

  5. Hutch Carpenter Says:

    I like this Jake. Stoplights – who knew there could be innovation there. Your example of using the cross walk count downs is a good one. I use those in San Francisco all the time as a gauge for how long the light will stay green.

  6. Jake Says:

    I just found it awesome that something with a design that seems so finished with very little room for innovative improvement would have several aspects for new ideas. I guess if I read Make or Popular Mechanics more, I'd see a lot more of this.

    Re. walk lights, it's hard for me when I go to cities that don't have these at every intersection. I feel lost and at the whim of the light.

  7. GrahamAka Says:

    Red light countdown is a recipe for trouble I think…

    “Gentlemen (young, teenage gentlemen) … START YOUR ENGINES!”

    The green light counter is a good idea though, it may promote a *little* speeding up, but I doubt that would cause as many problems as the red [in the UK where the sequence goes green->amber->red there's no huge amount of speeding to make the amber light (a little though)).

    My favourite pedestrian counters are the ones that both show how long until the next crossing time, and the time left on the current one; SF seems to have those down well :)

  8. Jake Says:

    Yeah, Chet mentions a similar point. There would need to be a couple second gap between the red lights at opposing intersections to prevent mishaps. Most lights already have one, i.e. a dead zone when both lights are red for an instant.

    Frankly, I'm skeptical that it would limit emissions. I tend to turn off my engine in two situations: 1) when a drawbridge is up, not a very common situation in other cities and 2) when I'm in a long drive through line and can roll in neutral. I think the macro-environmental benefits of shutting off one's engine at red lights would quickly be lost to the mirco-economical losses of replacing starters prematurely.

    Green light timers (like the one Simon mentions in Turkey) would be awesome, and like I said, I love the green speed meter too.

    I also prefer the timer pedestrian crossing monitors, but they're not at every intersection. Very useful, but probably expensive, at a minimum for retrofitting.

  9. GrahamAka Says:

    There are some areas in Switzerland where if you're more than 2 cars back at the lights you have to switch off the engine by law … and in the UK our govt. has started a campaign to report people “uncessarily idling” with fines etc (the advert shows parents sitting in cars with the engines idling outside schools waiting for their kids) so I guess that we may all be forced into the situation where having hte engine on when the car is stationary will become unacceptable; if we get to that point then innovations like this will be a big help!

  10. Jake Says:

    Wow, interesting stuff. I love this post b/c it's opened my eyes to several nuances of international traffic laws and technology. Win.

    Having lived and driven in several of the largest cities here in the US, I can say with stone cold certainty that turning off my engine in traffic would garner me tons of hard looks and honks and probably a handful of assault charges.

    I don't know jack about cars, but it seems like incessantly turning in on/off would bork up the starter much faster due to the unsuspecting wear. Although, that creates more innovation in an area that seems unlikely (assumption).

  11. Jake Says:

    I just found it awesome that something with a design that seems so finished with very little room for innovative improvement would have several aspects for new ideas. I guess if I read Make or Popular Mechanics more, I'd see a lot more of this.

    Re. walk lights, it's hard for me when I go to cities that don't have these at every intersection. I feel lost and at the whim of the light.

  12. GrahamAka Says:

    Red light countdown is a recipe for trouble I think…

    “Gentlemen (young, teenage gentlemen) … START YOUR ENGINES!”

    The green light counter is a good idea though, it may promote a *little* speeding up, but I doubt that would cause as many problems as the red [in the UK where the sequence goes green->amber->red there's no huge amount of speeding to make the amber light (a little though)).

    My favourite pedestrian counters are the ones that both show how long until the next crossing time, and the time left on the current one; SF seems to have those down well :)

  13. Jake Says:

    Yeah, Chet mentions a similar point. There would need to be a couple second gap between the red lights at opposing intersections to prevent mishaps. Most lights already have one, i.e. a dead zone when both lights are red for an instant.

    Frankly, I'm skeptical that it would limit emissions. I tend to turn off my engine in two situations: 1) when a drawbridge is up, not a very common situation in other cities and 2) when I'm in a long drive through line and can roll in neutral. I think the macro-environmental benefits of shutting off one's engine at red lights would quickly be lost to the mirco-economical losses of replacing starters prematurely.

    Green light timers (like the one Simon mentions in Turkey) would be awesome, and like I said, I love the green speed meter too.

    I also prefer the timer pedestrian crossing monitors, but they're not at every intersection. Very useful, but probably expensive, at a minimum for retrofitting.

  14. GrahamAka Says:

    There are some areas in Switzerland where if you're more than 2 cars back at the lights you have to switch off the engine by law … and in the UK our govt. has started a campaign to report people “uncessarily idling” with fines etc (the advert shows parents sitting in cars with the engines idling outside schools waiting for their kids) so I guess that we may all be forced into the situation where having hte engine on when the car is stationary will become unacceptable; if we get to that point then innovations like this will be a big help!

  15. Jake Says:

    Wow, interesting stuff. I love this post b/c it's opened my eyes to several nuances of international traffic laws and technology. Win.

    Having lived and driven in several of the largest cities here in the US, I can say with stone cold certainty that turning off my engine in traffic would garner me tons of hard looks and honks and probably a handful of assault charges.

    I don't know jack about cars, but it seems like incessantly turning in on/off would bork up the starter much faster due to the unsuspecting wear. Although, that creates more innovation in an area that seems unlikely (assumption).

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