News 13 Investigates: Are cities ready for invisible drivers?

If you live to be 80, you will have spent six months waiting at traffic lights over the course of your life. New transportation technology could give you that time back. All you have to do is give up control -- to an invisible driver.

Imagine never stopping at a red light again. Many of us could get behind an idea like that, but for cities and engineers to pull it off, it's going to cost taxpayers.

RELATED | News 13 Investigates: Invisible drivers behind the wheel

You've felt the frustration, but likely never thought about the time and money wasted, waiting for a green light. Drivers in the United States annually waste $160 billion in time and fuel. The hit to your wallet, $960.00 each year. Clemson professor Ardalan Vahidi wants to reduce that.

“We reduce the number of stops and delays, that improves fuel economy, reduces emissions and makes the ride a much more comfortable ride,” said Vahidi.

Changing what you think of as a traditional intersection. Imagine if your autonomous vehicle arrived at an intersection, but something's missing.

“You're going to see an intersection without a traffic signal,” said Vahidi.

Vahidi challenged PHD Clemson student and software whiz Ali Fayazi to create a server that syncs intersections with self-driving vehicles, keeping you moving past the orange cones in this case acting as a waiting red light.

“You can see the real vehicles as red dots on the display,” said Fayazi.

“We have the simulated vehicles that are interacting with the real vehicles, and this closed test site provides a good opportunity for us to evaluate our system showing real work condition,” said Fayazi.

A computer 40 miles away acts as the unseen traffic light.

“As we approach the intersection, as you can see, the driver assistant subscribes to the server and then shows me the appropriate speed to follow in the green zone on the speedometer,” said Fayazi.

Since these vehicles aren't self-driving yet, the driver follows the recommended speed and receives a slot based time to arrive at the intersection when no other vehicles are passing.

But what happens if you get stuck behind a slow driver?

“The server will solve the problem again, and it will send us new recommendations based on the new conditions,” explains Fayazi.

Recalculating every six seconds. For now, they're keeping it simple, but they can add more complicated algorithms.

“We can add turning and also lane changing to the algorithm,” said Fayazi.

The government will have to set minimum standards. Right now, it's put in place just vague guidelines. Vehicles will also need standards for swarm technology, which is the ability to talk to each other and city infrastructure. Asheville Transportation Director Ken Putnam says don't expect to see a traffic-lightless intersection in Asheville in the next few years.

“The answer is we really can't, not now. We've got to wait and see. You know some times you don't want to be first,” said Putnam.

The 19-mile Triangle Expressway outside Raleigh is one of 10 areas nationwide that’s been designated as a proving ground pilot site for automated vehicles. While it has intelligent transportation systems, the North Carolina DOT has given cities no direction how to prepare for emerging technology or what connecting cities might cost. Re-timing traffic lights alone is thousands of dollars for a city.

“The technology might get there faster. Then everybody be ready to receive it,” said Putnam.

U.S. transportation officials are pushing the country to get wired, a $926 billion investment over decades. Right now, the federal government is working to connect transit vehicles in New York City to intersections and just last month announced federal aid for vehicle to infrastructure resources. But it’s left cities to feel like they're driving in the dark without headlights.

“Even the state is not seriously trying to say, 'set aside money or put plans in place to see what kind of infrastructure,' because again what is that infrastructure, what's it going to be like?” questions Putnam.

There's got to be some type of consistency first.

In reality, the market doesn't know what the standard will be. It could be IBM's Olli or something else.

We do know the changes will come at a cost to taxpayers for infrastructure improvements, and so far Asheville's not budgeting for traffic light-less intersections.

If you're interested in more information about ITIC click here.

Here's what the federal government is saying about Automated/Autonomous Vehicles.

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