Ohio State University engineers are working to make the traffic control boxes that stand beside major freeways smarter .
They've developed new software that helps the computerized boxes locate road incidents -- such as traffic back-ups or accidents -- and notify transportation authorities at lower cost, especially in rural areas.
For a large city like Columbus, Ohio, the savings could add up to tens of thousands of dollars a month. For a state like California the savings could be over a million dollars a year.
Over the last few decades, transportation departments around the country have installed devices called "loop detectors" to monitor traffic at key points on the road network, explained Benjamin Coifman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science at Ohio State. He is also an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The car-sized wire loops buried in the pavement effectively act as metal detectors. When a car passes over a loop, the detector sends a signal to a computer in a control box at the side of the road.
The controller may simply count the number of cars that pass by and calculate average speed, or it may actively control traffic. Ramp meters are one example -- they limit the number of cars entering a freeway by controlling a traffic signal on the on-ramp.
But Coifman knows that the controller boxes can do much more.
"The basic technology of these devices is very reliable, and such detectors are becoming more widespread as congestion increases," he said. "But little attention has been paid to how they are used."
"It's as if you handed a teenager a cell phone and said, 'make all the calls you like.' A lot of information gets transmitted, you might only be interested in a small amount of it, and you get a large phone bill at the end of the month."
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