A London firm is working on ways to create the roads of the future, featuring interactive displays for pedestrians.
Following an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths recorded annually, a software firm in London decided that it needed to do something about the streets. So it elected to embrace science and create what may end up being the roads of the future.
The concept from British software company Umbrellium is both simple and incredibly sophisticated. The idea would be to line streets with embedded LED lights that change and react based on the needs of the people waiting at crosswalks and on the street. The first test is underway in London, and the results could actually help to save lives.
Each year, thousands of pedestrians in the U.S. alone are killed in vehicle-related accidents. In 2015, nearly 5,400 people died, leading to an average of one death every 1.6 hours. To further terrify you, in the same year, almost 129,000 pedestrians were sent to the emergency room and treated for non-fatal injuries.
While around 72-percent of those deaths occurred at night and one-third of those fatalities reported that alcohol was involved, a startling number of people were killed while simply walking through a crosswalk – since 2006, around 500 deaths a year happen when pedestrians walking through designated crosswalks are struck. And that’s in the U.S. alone.
There are several reasons for this, including poorly lit streets, reckless driving, and an increase in pedestrians distracted by smartphones. The numbers are also increasing thanks to longer periods of warmer temperatures, which see more and more people outside for longer periods of time. So basically, this is a trend that shows no signs of declining. As a result, cities are constantly looking for ways to improve the roads for both drivers and pedestrians.
“The pedestrian crossing that we know hasn’t really be updated since the 1940s, and these days we inhabit our cities in quite a different way,” said Umbrellium founder Usman Haque. “We have mobile phones in our hands that distract us, and our relationship to the city is very different.”
Umbrellium created a test crosswalk in a TV studio in South West London. The company installed hundreds of LED lights in the surface of extremely durable and tough plastic panels that change based on the commands sent to them by nearby cameras connected to a software interface. The cameras and the software anticipate the movements of pedestrians and vehicles and react accordingly.
The panels are held together by a metal framework that ensures there are no cracks or slips even with the weight and impact of vehicles, and they are also designed to be slip resistant. The current model is a prototype, and final models will include the traditional roadside curbs, as well as special cues for the visually impaired.
Along with acting as a replacement for the traditional zebra-striped crosswalks, Umbrellium designed the lights to help distracted pedestrians who may be engrossed in their mobile devices. If someone is not paying attention and walking toward a crosswalk while a vehicle is also speeding that direction, the street will change colors for the pedestrian and progress from caution to warning.
“We’re trying to create pattern sequences that unfold quite calmly so nobody’s surprised, it’s definitely not about distracting people, and the graphics themselves or notions on the surface look very familiar,” said Haque. “They look just like the road markings that you probably already understand but they’re geared towards people being more aware of each other.”
The roads will also only appear when needed. During the busiest times of the day, they will remain on at all times to help direct traffic. But at night, they may turn off completely, only reactivating when needed. This should help to save energy, and it will also cut down light pollution for the people living in the densely packed neighborhoods, like those frequently found in London.
This is all still very much in the prototype phase, but given that Umbrellium has a working model to show off, the benefits can be seen immediately. The cost also remains a question, both in terms of the interactive streets and the costs involved in tearing up existing roads. If the final models can be offered at a reasonable price, cities where pedestrians and vehicles often share the same spaces and are constantly looking at potential solutions – especially cities with dense urban centers like London, Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, etc. – may decide that the cost is worth it if it helps prevent the rising number of pedestrian fatalities.
For now, Umbrellium’s concept of the roads of the future remains just an appealing idea, but don’t be surprised if one day soon you look down and find the road changing patterns and colors just for you.