‘Smart’ Light Poles Ease Traffic and Increase Safety

It might seem like an odd choice to enhance a simple lamp post with the latest and greatest in technology and sensors — why bother? What more can a lamp post have to offer than the service indicated in its very name: providing light? But new systems from companies like Illuminating Concepts could show that smart lamp posts aren’t just here to prove a point: they could have impactful effects on driver safety and efficiency.

Jordan Perch, an analyst at DMV.com, describes the basic idea of these posts as “primarily aimed at improving traffic flow, easing congestion, and ensuring the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.” Illuminating Concepts’ system is one of the most interesting — it incorporates cutting-edge tech from top to bottom. The light itself is solar powered and capable of adapting in real time to lighting conditions on a 100-point brightness scale. It has three more displays: one is a beacon capable of beaming a light in any color on the RGBA spectrum, useful for warnings to catch the driver’s eye (think of a flashing red light), another is the street sign (which is digital, allowing for scrolling and easy name changes), and the final is basically a digital sign, which could be used to display traffic updates, alerts, news or even advertising.

But the system, which Illuminating Concepts, a Verizon Innovation Program partner, calls the IntelliStreets, also has a visual sensor, sort of like the one in the Microsoft Kinect gaming accessory. It can measure proximity of cars, count the number of pedestrians that go by, and even theoretically be used as a security camera. Getting that kind of data is important; the more data we have, the better we’ll be able to design traffic systems that get travellers where they’re going as quickly and easily as possible. It’s the next step up from simple motion detectors that trigger traffic light changes.

“Adaptive traffic lights certainly help enhance road safety and ease traffic flow, and they could well have an impact on driving itself, and change people's driving habits in the long run,” says Perch.

IntelliStreets have already been installed all over the country; there’s a limited rollout in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago, though there are concerns, as always, about privacy: do we really want whoever’s running these street lamps to have this much knowledge about our movements? And Perch has another concern, albeit hypothetical: “People could start paying less attention to their surroundings and failing to look both ways before crossing an intersection,” he says. So no matter how smart the light poles become, never forget to look both ways.