By NEVASH NAIR
We come across them every day and without them our world would be a lot more chaotic. They keep us safe and sometimes also drive us to the edge.
First put into place on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug 5 in 1914, the world’s first electric traffic signal was based on a design by James Hoge, who received a US patent for his ‘Municipal Traffic Control System’ in 1918. It comprised four pairs of red and green lights that served as stop-go indicators, each mounted on a corner post.
Traffic lights are believed to have been introduced here in the 1950s. Today, every town has them, and without them our roads would not be the same.
However, over the past 10 years, traffic lights have come to be seen as a hinderance by most Malaysians as the number of vehicles on the road continues to grow.
According to a study by the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research, in the 1980s road fatalities increased at an average of 4% annually.
In the 1990s, the numbers continued to rise. The country recorded a 5% annual increase in road fatalities through out the decade.
As a result, an integrated approach to reducing road crashes was aggressively started in the late 1990s and the results of the effort were seen from 2000 to 2009 — annual fatalities were reduced by 2%.
With government still striving to improve these statistics, one local entrepreneur is aiming at changing future traffic junctions in Malaysia and indirectly reducing bad driving habits at traffic lights.
Datuk Tan Boon Hock, a Klang Valley-based businessman who made his name in healthcare, has ventured into developing a state-of-the-art traffic light system.
As the managing director of Optimax Eye Specialist Centre Sdn Bhd, Tan previously set up two hospitals in Rawang and Seremban, through joint ventures involving a total investment of up to RM52mil. Now his latest endeavour, under the company TrafficSens Systems (M) Sdn Bhd, deals with road traffic systems.
“We need to continue evolving. We can’t be stagnant in business. We will become obsolete,” said Tan.
And Tan’s venture into the traffic system might not be as suprising as some might think. There are those who see traffic management as a field ripe for investment.
Several months ago, Google, a company that doesn’t make any vehicles at all, paid an estimated US$1.1bil (RM3.2bil) for Waze, a company it said will revolutionise the way people get around.
Waze is the creator of an app also called Waze that aims at helping drivers avoid traffic jams through the use of software to report road congestion to one another — and thus, they hope, reduce their commute times, fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Google acquisition of the company and its app is seen as the latest sign of a shift in the future of transportation.
And this is the view that Tan and his team of developers are taking.
TrafficSens, a project that Tan’s team has been working on aims at reducing traffic congestion in the Klang Valley with a smart system that will be able to improve traffic flow within the city.
“Imagine five policemen at five different junctions on the same road. They can manage traffic better because they are in constant communication with each other. At each intersection, the officer is able to estimate traffic flow because he or she is updated,” said Tan.
“Our traffic lights will also be able to do this without any interference.
“Our traffic lights ‘talk’ to each other to ensure smooth traffic flow at all times. The previous timer system is a thing of the past. Traffic lights need to detect the number of vehicles and adapt,” he explained.
A similar system has been a hit in Canada. A university team from Toronto created a software system that enables traffic lights to learn how cars flow under them — and then adjust their patterns of reds and greens to move that traffic more smoothly.
The software, which uses artificial intelligence techniques, is installed at 59 intersections in downtown Toronto. The results show unprecedented reduction in the average intersection delay ranging from 27% to 39%, travel-time savings of 15% and 26% along the busiest routes in downtown Toronto.
“We will be using a 3G system to be proactive. If a traffic light breaks down, we will know in an instant as the system will send us an SMS immediately,” said Tan, who received a government grant of RM1.8mil for research and development. By April next year, 64 junctions in Kuala Lumpur will be equipped with the new smart traffic system.
Tan said that the possibilities with the new smart system are endless.
“In the future, we want to create an app for drivers to connect with the traffic lights,” he said.
The first set of ‘smart’ traffic lights has gone through successful testing in Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur, and it has garnered plenty of interest from overseas. Tan’s team will be presenting a scientific paper on this system at the prestigious Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Tokyo next week.