23 October 2017

The days of the paint-on-the-floor pedestrian crossing could be numbered.  A new smart crossing, which alerts drivers to people stepping out unexpectedly and widens in response to demand, has been prototyped in London.

What is the Smart Crossing and what does it do?

The Smart Crossing is a collaboration between architectural firm Umbrellium and insurance giant Direct Line and consists of a responsive road surface that can tell the difference between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists and a network of cameras.

All that detection data means the LED road can adapt its markings and signals in real-time to keep users safe and learn from the behaviours of road users over time.

As well as widening the crossing space, the road can also serve up extra warnings to cyclists when pedestrians are hidden by high-sided vehicles or when a distracted pedestrian steps into the road.

Here's just three examples of how the Smart Crossing can help alert drivers and pedestrians as to potential dangers of the road...

Distracted pedestrians

Child safety

Overcoming blind spots

How does the Smart Crossing work?

The Smart Crossing consists of 22 meters of responsive road surface. The top layer consists of normal, ultra-bright LEDs protected from vehicle impact and water damage by high-impact plastic. Underneath there's a bolted steel-substructure designed to ensure the panels and cablings don't come apart.

The detection system in the prototype consists of two cameras monitoring the street from opposite ends. A computer does the hard work of 'classifying' objects in each scene, tracks movement, and assumes trajectory. The computer then responds by sending signals to the relevant LEDs to make the appropriate patterns on the road.

By default the crossing space looks like a digitised version of a traditional zebra crossing but it's activated by a pedestrian symbol (which appears first red, then green) on the floor at the edge of the road. When a pedestrian is detected the crossing appears on the road as normal with the marking disappearing when no longer required. If lots of people try to cross at once, the crossing markings will widen.

When the crossing is visible the stop line and area for cyclists is moved in response to ensure a safe distance between vehicles and pedestrians.

What happens next? 

With current crossings barely changed in the last 60 years there's clearly significant potential to improve road safety. According to data from Road Safety Analysis and the Transport Research Laboratory, an average of 20 potentially dangerous incidents occur each day at crossings in the UK.

The code that powers the crossing has been made available open-source in the hope that other firms will further exploit its potential. Meanwhile, the team continue to explore the logistics of real-world implementation. Multiple detectors and fail safes including pressure sensors are likely to be required beyond the prototype.

The Smart Crossing definitely has potential and serves as a re-imagining of how cities can adapt in response to the needs of users. Perhaps in the near future the city may know where we're heading and when we'll arrive, adjusting the obstacles in our path. Perhaps the days of the traffic light could finally be numbered?