Everything’s getting smarter these days.

Even our traffic lights are earning advanced degrees.

Virtually unchanged in the past century or so, American traffic signals have entered the era of machine learning … Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

And they arrive with the promise of a safer, greener and more efficient transportation world.

A study by Romanian and U.S. researchers supports this rosy outlook. The study concluded that smart traffic lights might reduce the time drivers spend waiting at intersections by more than 28% during rush hours and reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 6.5%.

Impressive numbers, especially at a time when vehicle-pedestrian crashes and carbon emissions are at an all-time high.

So, what are smart traffic signals? At first glance, they look like traditional traffic lights. But that’s where the similarities end.

In broad terms, smart traffic lights are a system that combines traditional traffic lights with an array of sensors and AI to intelligently route vehicle and pedestrian traffic. They can form part of a bigger intelligent transport system.

As OKI Deputy Executive Director Bob Koehler explained, smart signals are “connected to a larger system operated at a central location in a remote office. This allows for efficient oversight of the entire system and the ability to automate signal timing enhancements that react to changes in demand during the day.”

He said, “Newer signals mean less stop-go-traffic and much smoother movement. Fewer vehicles idling and smoother traffic flow reduce mobile source emissions as well as crashes at intersections.”

They’re a long way from the world’s first electric traffic signal, which was erected at the corner of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in 1914.

Original traffic signals were called pre-timed signals. The amount of green time given to a street was decided based on traffic flow.

“Typically, these signals had a distinct pattern by time of day that was pre-set by coding information at the traffic controller, which was installed in a box at the corner of the intersection,” Koehler explained.

Today, that gray metal box is being replaced by machinery that would astonish the great Nicola Tesla, whose musings foreshadowed AI.

Every year, more and more of our region’s jurisdictions are moving to smart traffic signals.

Most recently, Butler County said it will spend nearly $1 million to upgrade 45 traffic signals in high traffic areas, which will have smart technology features for safer pedestrian and driver travel.

Funding for the upgrades came from an OKI grant.

Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens told the Journal-News they are adding pedestrian countdown modules at crosswalks, radar vehicle detection devices, and upgrading 22 controllers.

Wilkens said, “Smart traffic signals are the solution that minimizes idle time and maximizes traffic flow efficiency. Emissions are reduced with every vehicle moving steadily, leading to a safer and healthier environment for all.”

And a smart solution for everyone.

— Jim Pickering