Audi A4 and Q7 can now 'Connect' to Las Vegas Traffic Lights

Forget self-parking or self-steering cars, as neat as those toys are, they are only a part of the game-changing revolution that will reshape society. Instead, the integration of cars into the internet of things is the next big thing, and Audi has just taken a bold step towards its realisation with the debut of their Traffic Light Information system.

The V2I (Vehicle-2-Infrastructure) system, which is available on the new North American A4 and Q7 models equipped with the Audi connect feature, is able to communicate with municipal traffic management centres to acquire traffic-light data. This in turn, allows the car’s onboard system to predict if the driver can make it to the set of traffic lights ahead before it turns red, or inform the driver on when the traffic lights will turn green, well before they arrive at the set of lights.

For the time being this V2I feature is only available in the glitzy city of Las Vegas, in the United States. A rather intriguing location considering that the feature has yet to be adopted in Europe. However, Audi says that they will eventually roll out the feature to other cities in the United States and Europe in the near future.

Based on pilot projects done in Europe, Audi says the Traffic Light Information system is able to improve traffic flow by giving drivers the foresight to anticipate the traffic lights ahead. By their estimates, the number of cars that had to brake to a standstill in traffic was reduced by 20 per cent, thus contributing to a fuel saving of 15 per cent.

Audi has big plans for the Traffic Light Information system, one concept that they have in mind is linking the system up to the car’s navigation system, allowing drivers to chart a route that will take into account traffic light sequences, enabling to save both time and fuel.

In the meantime Audi is looking at increasing the spread of this technology, working with municipal councils to introduce this technology, especially in Europe. According to Audi there are already 700 connected traffic lights in Berlin’s inner city, while there were extensive pilot projects already carried out in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Verona, and Audi’s home town of Ingolstadt.

Although V2I and V2V (Vehicle-2-Vehicle) technologies, otherwise known as Car-to-X technology, might not be as impressive as a car that is able to drive and steer itself, the implementation of the technology is much more challenging.

Most cars with autonomous features today are merely cars that can steer, brake, and navigate better than you. But it is only as good as what its array of sensors and cameras can see in its vicinity. And as the fatal Tesla accident earlier this year has proven, it carries with it some risks.

V2I and V2V technology on the other hand, allow cars to communicate with infrastructure and other cars, allowing the exchange of information that is well beyond the sensory range of both car and driver.

The technology has been around for years already with car companies and suppliers experimenting on technologies that not only lets drivers know about the traffic lights ahead, but also find specific parking spots such as Volvo’s autonomous parking concept, using the feedback from other cars to keep maps up to date such as Audi’s Swarm intelligence concept, and even get notification of upcoming hazards from other cars.

By enabling cars to communicate with both infrastructure and other vehicles, it could further improve the effectiveness of autonomous cars, allowing cars to safely and effectively navigate themselves through intersections and congestions. Ultimately such technology could eliminate congestion, and traffic lights, as cars would be able to cross intersections safely by coordinating their approaches with one another, as suggested by internet know-it-all CGP Grey.

Its availability is one thing, but the real challenge with the technology is in its implementation. Bringing this technology to bear on a wide scale would require the involvement of legislative and bureaucratic bodies, which in itself will be no small feat. After all, there is little incentive to introduce a technology that would only benefit a few cars at this stage and plenty of other pressing issues with the technology to address before a widescale adoption could happen.

Another hurdle to go through is the amount of data transfer required to pull it off. According to the boffins at Continental AG, who were developing such systems, they calculated that the amount of data transmitted between vehicle and infrastructure and other vehicles were measured in the megabytes. When combined with several such vehicles in the area and the data transfer loads could go into the gigabytes. Effectively you could exhaust your monthly mobile data quota by popping by the shops.

Intel themselves estimate that cars equipped with long and short range radars, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors, would be collecting and processing up to a gigabyte of data per second, which isn’t a good sign when those are speeds expected of a good commercial internet landline connection, and not the sort of data transfer rates expected from a speeding hunks of metal sending bits of data wirelessly between one another in a split second.

There is some light on the horizon as Audi, together with the BMW Group and Damiler AG, have banded together with telecommunications giants Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, and Qualcomm to form the “5G Automotive Association”.

Besides being named like the most excruciatingly boring group this side of an accountancy convention held in the depths of a salt mine, the Association is looking towards developing, testing, supporting standardisation, engaging regulatory bodies, and addressing security concerns of this budding new technology.

The group is also pinning their hopes on the emergence of 5G mobile networks, which is able to handle higher data volume, while delivering significantly reduced latency issues. The adoption of this new communications is the crucial breakthrough for many car companies to finally realise the dream of integrating cars with the internet of things, and Audi's Traffic Light Information system is the first pioneer in this game-changing new field.