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.
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.
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