Self-Driving Trial Suggests Traffic Lights Could Become Obsolete

U.K. study calls into question the need for traffic lights with autonomous vehicles

Graham Hope

February 20, 2023

2 Min Read

A successful trial of autonomous cars has been concluded in London that could revolutionize driving in the United Kingdom.

For the past three years, the research project ServCity has been working to understand how to help cities successfully incorporate autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies into a complex urban environment, creating a blueprint of the type of infrastructure that will be required.

And it has come up with some interesting findings – including the potential future role of traffic lights.

As part of the trial, two ServCity Nissan Leaf EVs completed hundreds of laps around a 2.7-mile route on busy A-roads in Woolwich in the southeast of the British capital.

One of the consortium members, Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL), was responsible for installing around 270 cameras along the route, which relayed information to the Leafs about any potential issues they would have to navigate, such as London’s famous red double-decker buses.

Thomas Tompkin, Head of Network Infrastructure and Operations of SMLL, the urban testbed of one of the consortium members TRL,explained: “We configured our roadside sensor infrastructure and data processing to understand and demonstrate the best ways for CAVs [connected autonomous vehicles] to acquire better shared situational awareness … within the environment.”

And now that the test has ended, it has been hailed as a major success. In an interview with the U.K.’s PA Media agency, Tompkin said it showed that “a seismic shift in the way our roads are laid out” is possible. “If we think about maybe 20 or 30 years’ time, can you start to then think about the infrastructure outside? Can you start to remove some of that infrastructure such as traffic signals?”

The thinking is that driverless cars will be clever enough to manage traffic flow themselves. And while acknowledging there is plenty of work to be done before this could materialize, it isn’t the first time the role of traffic lights has been called into question in a landscape where AVs are common.

A recent study by researchers at North Carolina State University recently put forward a different suggestion that a fourth white light be added at traffic signals to illustrate to all road users that AVs are controlling the traffic flow.

Robert Bateman of Nissan said that the success of the London trial – a notoriously difficult city to drive in, which was named the worlds most congested by TomTom earlier this year – is particularly encouraging for the future of AVs.

Bateman pointed out that rule-breaking was commonplace on London’s roads. “If you can get it right here, you can deliver an autonomous vehicle anywhere in the world,” he said.

The U.K. government, which invested $8.42million in the project, will study its findings.“ServCity has proven key to answer the practical questions of how to integrate self-driving vehicles into cities for the public good,” transport minister Jesse Norman said.

About the Author(s)

Graham Hope

Graham Hope has worked in automotive journalism in the U.K. for 26 years, including spells as editor of leading consumer news website and weekly Auto Express and respected buying guide CarBuyer.

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