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Your next Audi will warn you of red lights, but that’s just the beginning

Sometimes a little information can go a long way.

Something as simple as knowing when the stoplight coming up is going to change can have a profound effect on the way you choose to drive. If you know that you’re going to hit that red light no matter what you do, you might choose to ease up and just coast up to the light. Or if you know it’s about to go green, why slow down and then speed up again? That little bit of information can help smooth out your driving, and in the process, help smooth out traffic congestion as well.

Audi recently became the first automaker to offer Traffic Light Information as a fully integrated feature available on selected new vehicles including Audi A4, Q7, and A4 Allroad models. Other automakers (notably BMW) work with smartphone apps that provide similar information, but Audi’s solution does not depend on a paired phone running an app. It’s native to the car’s driver information system.

“The launch of this technology is another in a long list of firsts for Audi that have positioned us as the industry leader in connectivity solutions,” said Audi of America President Scott Keogh. “V2I applications and services like Traffic Light Information are essential components as we continue to move toward an autonomous future.”

How it works

The process of getting traffic light status info and predictions about light changes is fairly straightforward. The municipality where you’re driving shares its data with Audi, and Audi broadcasts the information to your car, where the data is compared with your car’s GPS data to determine which light you’re approaching. Then the car puts an icon and a counter up on the gauge pod driver information display, and into the head-up display projected onto the driver’s side of the windshield. The information displayed is simple: it shows a picture of a stoplight in its current state, red or green, plus a counter giving the system’s best prediction of when the light is likely to change.

There’s a key word hidden in that last sentence, and it’s “prediction.” Because there are some variables that can’t be precisely predicted, such as emergency vehicles that have the ability to change or hold a light as they approach, sometimes the system does not have full confidence about when the light will change. In that case, the Audi will not display the counter for you. The driver still has to obey the light, no matter what the dashboard display might say.

On the back end, things are more complicated. First of all, not all municipalities have the same kind of traffic light controls. Cities where the streetlight implementation is older may not be able to provide the data the automakers need, and in many cases, traffic signals are controlled by a variety of different agencies and municipalities that may or may not coordinate together. That means that the rollout will likely be checkered and dependent on where you live.

Viva Las Vegas!

Las Vegas has a history of working with automakers in general and Audi in particular on advanced technology research.

At the present time, Audi is running a pilot program in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Digital Trends went to try out the system. Las Vegas is unusual among American cities because it has one of the newest traffic light control systems in the nation, and one agency controls most of the signals for the greater Las Vegas urban area. Las Vegas has a history of working with automakers, Audi in particular, on advanced technology research. Nevada issued Audi with the first autonomous car license three years ago, for a fully autonomous drive project from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

More: Stop wasting gas in the city with the app that knows when traffic lights will change

“The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) is proud to be the first in the nation to connect our traffic signal network to vehicles through our collaboration with Audi,” said Tina Quigley, RTC General Manager. “This vehicle-to-infrastructure technology will help reduce congestion and enhance mobility on our already crowded roadways. Beyond the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip, Southern Nevada continues to lead the way in transportation technology creating smart cities and communities for our residents and visitors.”

The engine that drives TLI services

The company that supplies the traffic light information technology to Audi is called Traffic Technology Services, Inc. it’s based in Beaverton, Oregon. The nearby city of Portland will likely begin supplying TLI information in the near future — the start of a much bigger program.

“We’re talking with up to 500 agencies nationwide,” said Thomas Bauer, CEO of TTS, Inc.

Bauer founded TTS in 2013, and business was relatively slow to get going until Audi brought the issue into the spotlight.

“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg question,” Bauer explained. “We’d like to have all the cities equipped, but how do you equip the signals when you don’t have the customers? Then we did our very first proof of concept with Audi at CES in 2014. As soon as Audi went public with this, the responsiveness from the agencies went up 300 to 500 percent.”

Today, TTS is working with Audi worldwide wherever government agencies are receptive.

“With Audi we’ve done big projects in China, in Europe, and in America,” Bauer said. “The work is done here [in Oregon], but it doesn’t matter if the traffic signal is in Shanghai or Ingolstadt. The core technology is the same. It just gets adapted to the local flavor.

What does this mean for the future?

Broadly speaking, TLI is just one feature in a series called Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications. Traffic light information is easy to understand and easy to convey visually to humans, but as we move toward a more assisted and autonomous driving experience, other V2I applications can include lane distribution, assisted merging, variable speed limits, and alternate routing. Broadly speaking, these features fall under the heading of Active Traffic Management (ATM), which is already in use in Europe.

“There’s a fine line between driver information and driver confusion.”

“The idea of ATM is to actively control freeway traffic,” Bauer told Digital Trends. “Many of the more congested sections of the German autobahns have a sign every kilometer or so that has a symbol for each lane. Mostly it’s for dynamic speed control, to try to prevent slowdowns. There’s also a weather aspect, with signs for fog, ice, and no passing for trucks.”

At the moment, Active Traffic Management is delivered on signs outside the car, but the technology that Audi is putting into its cars for TLI can change that.

“There’s a fine line between driver information and driver confusion,” Bauer said. “What we bring into the cars with traffic signals, we can do the same with ATM. So if you drive down the freeway, in the initial phase you may just see the speed and control applicable to your lane right now, as well as what’s coming up. The idea behind it is that it can help you in foggy conditions, or if you’re behind a truck.”

V2I communications also dovetail with Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communications that alert nearby cars to the driver’s actions. The technology also enables Vehicle-to-Government (V2G) communications, which may allow municipalities to eliminate parking meters in favor of GPS-based parking fees, or to have the vehicle itself report emissions status for vehicle registration renewal.

Increased communication between vehicles and transportation infrastructure is likely to ease traffic congestion that happens because we can’t know what’s happening out of our field of vision, or what’s happening in the car ahead of us. On balance, that’s a good thing.