Signals, Signage and Striping…Oh My!


There are a lot of things not to like about our current road infrastructure. It’s expensive, it doesn’t function terribly well and it’s ugly. While there are certainly beautiful streets out there, most are not. Far too frequently, our roads are obscenely wide and polluted with too much signage, striping and signals. Fortunately, driverless cars offer a hope that the sins of our recent past may not mar the future. Roads will not need to be as large in the future (as I’ve discussed elsewhere) and signs, striping and signals may vanish.

Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise, but signals, signage and striping strategies were developed shortly after cars started to gain mass appeal. Around the 1910’s and 1920’s, pedestrians, cyclists, horses, carriages, cars and trolleys were all mixing on our streets. Streets were chaotic and accidents resulting in injuries and fatalities were commonplace. Traffic controls were introduced to add order to our streets and reduce casualties.

Traffic controls, writ large, will not go away with driverless cars. We still needs rules of the road. But as the operators of our vehicles shift from humans to computers, the manner of these traffic controls will change immensely. Today’s traffic controls are governed by the limits of human senses. They target our vision and occasionally our hearing (think sirens). All to often they overwhelm our senses and deteriorate the visual quality of our environments.

Autonomous vehicles being design today can interpret the same visual signals that are designed for humans. But that’s not terribly efficient and computers can communicate and gather information in ways that humans cannot. As a result, researchers have started exploring alternatives. These alternatives fall into two mutually beneficial camps called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications. These systems will be built directly into our cars and streets and would accomplish the same functions as signals, signs and striping, but wirelessly and with little or no visual clutter. Traffic controls will still exist (traffic engineers won’t be out of a job) but they will exist in the digital sphere instead of the physical one.

The design of our urban spaces will change significantly for the better with the removal of all the signs, signals and striping that make up traffic controls today. This transition will take a while since traditional systems can’t be removed until there are no longer people behind the wheel, but it will happen. Cities are anticipated to mandate driverless vehicles before rural areas (for good reason), so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long.

Additional Resources:

USDOT: Vehicle-to-Infrastructure Resources

University of Michigan: Mcity