Ignite 7: The Coming Revolution in Highway Communication

I promised I would have a more detailed discussion on my proposal to redesign vehicle signals. A five-minute presentation is great, but isn’t quite enough to really cover the details.

The current signal layout has stop lights, reverse lights and turn signals, which are also used as hazard lights. These are the only lights dedicated to signaling a driver’s intentions. We have parking lights and headlights too, but they don’t count. Seriously, they’re not signals.

What’s my problem with this setup? Let’s go over all the lights one at a time.

Turn signals

Turn signals are used to indicate all sideways movement. But there isn’t just one way to move sideways. For one, we change lanes quite often. In many cases, where it’s possible to change lanes or make a turn, it’s difficult to show a driver’s intentions.

Not all intersections are your standard four-way situation. Many have multiple roads in a given direction, and in those cases, it’s common for one lane to lead into two different turns. Also, on highways where two exits split off from the same place, it’s difficult knowing if a driver is taking the more gradual exit or making the sharper turn.

U-turns aren’t legal in all states, but even in those states there are places where they are explicitly allowed. And even where they aren’t, they still happen. Many drivers preparing for a u-turn will use a blinker, then start turning in the opposite direction to allow room to complete the turn. This confuses other drivers, but a dedicated u-turn light would clear up a lot of that confusion.

My idea to revamp the turn signal would look a little like this. To control these lights, we’d have a slight change to the controls we use today: The lane change signal would be activated by moving the blinker switch up or down, without clicking. Releasing the switch would turn the blinker off. Clicking the switch once would turn the soft turn signal on, and a second click activates the hard turn light. Once either direction is blinking, pulling on the switch (which usually toggles the brights with the current setup) turns on the u-turn signal. No matter what signal is on, pushing the switch will always return it to the center, disabling all turn signals.

Brake lights

It doesn’t seem too crazy to expect brake lights to respond to a driver slamming on the brakes, and inform other drivers that the car is decelerating faster than normal.

An outer ring could flash rapidly around the solid standard brake light when the system detects the car slowing down faster than what would be considered normal. I imagine there’d be some testing to determine what that rate would be. Also, if the driver slams on the brakes but the car doesn’t slow down as fast, maybe with faulty brake lines or ice on the road, the outer ring should still flash, to warn others that something isn’t right.

Hazard lights

It bothers me that cars still use the same lights for hazards that they do for turn signals. It seems irresponsible for a manufacturer to limit a driver’s ability to signal a lane change or turn while also signaling that there’s something wrong with the car.

Also, hazards are used in a wide variety of situations, from flat tires to overheated engines to simply driving slower than others up a steep incline. Hazards are generally thought to signal serious problems, so drivers are apprehensive about using them for more mild situations, such as driving a bit slower to save gas or driving in an unfamiliar area.

Like the two-part stop light, these lights would have a mild hazard mode and a severe hazard mode. Maybe drivers would be more willing to use them in less extreme cases if both modes were available.

It only seems natural to make the hazard signal in the shape of a triangle, since that symbol is used to illustrate dangerous situations on the road already. Of course the light should be red, like most hazard triangles and reflectors used to signal accidents and construction zones.

Controlling the dual hazard lights could use a switch much like the one used to control the fan on a kitchen stove: left to mild hazards, right for serious hazards, center to tun both off. Or a button shaped like the hazard symbol, where drivers can push the inner or outer triangles, and the lights would turn on accordingly.

The lights on an actual car don’t need to be nearly this big. That’s one thing many modern automobile manufacturers don’t seem to understand about LEDs. They’re much brighter and clearer, and a light made of LEDs is much more painful to look at than a traditional bulb light of the same size. A simple row of lights will work for the turn signals, and animating the signals would be even more effective.

The horn

This isn’t really in the scope of my main idea, but I do like the idea of a less aggressive horn, used when a driver wants to get someone’s attention when there is no immediate danger. First of all, it must be easier to engage the aggressive horn, since it must be used in emergencies. But a smaller button could activate what I called the Happy Horn in my presentation, which fades in and rises a bit in pitch, so it isn’t as surprising.

I’m very much against using the Angry Horn while arming and disarming car alarms. They’re typically used in parking lots where people are walking around, and to those people, it sounds like somebody is honking at them. Also irresponsible. I’m not a fan of superfluous government regulations, but I’d support one that bans horns used in this case.

Straight ahead signal

An idea I had when brainstorming for this presentation was a straight ahead signal. Why would this be a good idea? There are instances where it would be nice to let others know when I am going straight, and I just know they’re wondering if I’m just forgetting to signal a turn. A straight ahead signal would clear up that confusion, but to be effective, drivers would have to get in the habit of using the signal at every stop and every scenario where turning is an option. The straight ahead light would become the default signal, equivalent to using no signal, and would either be left on all the time or never used. I just don’t see this signal helping things, even though three of the four possible directions–left, right and backward–have their own dedicated signals.

Can we change?

This is all a pretty big change. Not just in the design and controls of the signals, but in the way we use them and expect others to do the same, in a world where half the drivers don’t already use the blinkers they’ve got.

I mention in the presentation that people have changed their recycling habits over time, which called for a change in the way garbage companies handled and dealt with the trash. This was a successful shift brought on by a concern for the environment. A concern for safety and efficient communication might be able to do the same for our car signals.

People are willing to invest in better systems when they feel the investment is worth it. We’ll pay money for a newer technology, like the jump from VHS to DVD, and spend the time learning to use a new computer application, as long as we think the time and money put into it will pay off.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. I would like to add some ideas to this proposal, but after working on the slides and narrowing my words down to 15-second chunks and then re-typing it for this blog post, I’m a bit burnt out on the whole thing. I want a milkshake.

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