Alexa Conomos is like a weathergirl for traffic. But a local man has invented an intelligent traffic light that could put her out of a job.
THE WORLD’S FIRST TRAFFIC SIGNAL was erected outside London’s Houses of Parliament in 1868. Invented by railway engineer J.P. Knight, the 23-foot steel contraption controlled wagon traffic by means of semaphore arms. It featured a gas-powered light for nighttime operation, and, after just a few months of service, it exploded, killing the policeman who operated it.
The first modern, nonlethal traffic signal, as it happens, appeared in 1923, at an intersection near downtown Dallas. Its precise location seems to have escaped the historical record, but its inventor we know. He was police and fire superintendent Henry “Dad” Garrett. Unlike every signal that came before it, Garrett’s controlled traffic automatically, with lights instead of mechanical arms. Unlike some of his other inventions—such as the water-powered automobile that ran for several seconds near White Rock Lake—Garrett’s signal was widely copied, but the courts denied him a protective patent on his idea, and he missed being a millionaire many times over.
Today, wherever that intersection is, it looks much different than it did under the glow of Garrett’s signal. In fact, the City of Dallas now has more than 1,000 traffic lights. Along one 3.2-mile stretch of Northwest Highway, between Abrams Road and the Tollway, about 67,000 vehicles a day creep from light to light. There the traffic-signal cycles, the time it takes a signal to go from green to yellow to red to green, are three minutes—the longest in Dallas. Add it up, and drivers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area spend, on average, about 74 hours a year in delays during rush-hour commutes. Only five large cities in the United States waste more time on the roads.
The problem will only get worse. Right now about 4.5 million people live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. By 2025, according to a report by the North Texas Council of Governments, that number will likely climb to 6.7 million, a 47 percent increase. As the population grows, the likelihood shrinks that you’ll make it through the signal at Northwest Highway and Preston Road in just one three-minute cycle.
So now the city that created the first modern traffic signal has produced an instrument for navigating that signal’s thousands of offspring. She is television’s Alexa Conomos. And let us not overlook Tammy Dombeck. Conomos and Dombeck are the traffic reporters for WFAA Channel 8 and KXAS Channel 5, respectively. Each stands before a map of the city and points out smashups and fender benders. A little like a meteorologist—except not. Conomos is the expert to turn to if you prefer brunettes; Dombeck if you like blondes.
For serious help with traffic, though, the city should turn to a man named Klaus Truemper, an obscure computer science professor at UTD. Truemper has come up with a futuristic, “thinking” traffic signal that could shave minutes off your commute time every day. There are only two problems: one, Truemper is an obscure computer science professor. Two, the people who oversee the operation of Dallas’ traffic lights are 12 years behind on the work they already have.
Klaus Truemper is a lanky man in his early 60s. Sitting in his sterile, second-floor office at UTD, he glances out the window as he explains his theories about traffic. Across the hall are rooms filled with high-powered computers. His accent makes him sound a bit like Dirk Nowitski. Truemper says he’s spent 10 years and a “considerable sum of money” bringing his idea to life.
The backbone of Truemper’s Traffic Versatile System (TraVerS) is a piece of software called Leibniz (named for everybody’s favorite 17th-century mathematician, Wilhelm von Gottfried Leibniz). Leibniz can do just about anything that uses statistical analysis to answer yes-no questions such as “Should I change the green light now?” or “Did I misspell potato?” or “Does this X-ray make me look fat?” And Leibniz can also let traffic signals talk to each other.
“My idea is to have an intelligent system at each traffic signal looking at what is happening and communicating with the neighboring intersections,” Truemper says. “The neighboring intersection tells it, ’I am going to send you so many cars in so many seconds.’ And it reacts appropriately.”
So what’s the holdup? And, more important, why are the Italians already using Truemper’s smart lights? The answers lie under Dallas City Hall.
There, in a large, windowless room, two floors below street level, the city’s traffic-management team works amid 12 TV monitors showing live shots of the city’s busiest streets. One TV is tuned to the Weather Channel. One flickers with snow. The telephones are down for maintenance. You half expect to see Henry Garrett’s traffic light somewhere on the premises. Instead, Beth Ramirez, program manager for the city’s traffic-management systems, reveals that the city’s traffic lights are controlled using IBM’s OS/2 operating system, which IBM doesn’t even print manuals for anymore.
Ramirez’s blonde hair almost touches her shoulders when she shrugs at Truemper’s idea. She doesn’t want to be too critical of it, having not seen Leibniz in action, but she sweetly explains that traffic systems have to be centrally managed and operated to avoid chaos. Seventy-nine percent of Dallas’ 1,271 signals are traffic-actuated, she says, meaning they adjust to traffic as it is detected by sensors near an intersection. The street with the highest volume of cars during a traffic signal cycle gets the most green time. But, the centrally set cycles only run so long—usually less than three minutes—so that traffic is evenly distributed across as many streets as possible.
Truemper’s TraVerS calls for a grid of intersections that use cameras to measure the speed and distance of oncoming traffic in all directions. The important distinction is that TraVerS is not constricted by centrally managed cycles. If a wreck on I-635 shoots a stream of cars onto the side streets, TraVerS-powered traffic signals, theoretically, would stay green long enough to let the cars flow away from the blocked highway. “What do we do now when there is something blocking the road?” Truemper asks. “We put a policeman out there to direct traffic because he can look at what’s happening and think about it and make decisions.”
As Ramirez’s group listens to a description of TraVerS, they furrow their brows and express only a certain irritated curiosity. This crew is bailing water from a dinghy. They need a bigger bucket, not a high-tech sonar system. This isn’t some university computer lab, their faces say. This is the real world.
“We’re not opposed to new ideas,” Ramirez says. “I genuinely hope he’s created something that we haven’t seen before.” But budgets being what they are, keeping up with growth is tough enough without challenging the entire premise on which current traffic signals run. To wit, Ramirez says that in the past five years, traffic has become heavier on the weekends than during weekday rush hours. The traffic-management center, of course, is closed on weekends. And even if Ramirez’s group were determined to update the timing pattern of the traffic signals in Dallas to reflect population growth, it would be a futile effort. The staff can only review and update about 100 signals a year. So if they started right now, retiming all the city’s signals would take 12 years.
Truemper’s TraVerS system isn’t completely without real-world experience. Two years ago, the Italian government provided more than a million dollars in funding so Truemper and several Italian agencies could run a series of tests at a busy intersection in Naples, where the signals worked well. Locally, however, Truemper hasn’t had much luck. He says he’s talking with venture capitalists to see if there’s a way to commercialize his system. “Our main goal is not to make money but to see this come to fruition and use,” he says. “That would please us more than anything else.”
For now, TraVerS seems a long way away from hitting the streets, and Truemper will have to work hard to convince Dallas that he’s the modern day Henry “Dad” Garrett. Traffic will continue to pile up around the highways and city streets, likely faster than Ramirez and her crew can sic their mainframes on the problem. While waiting for green lights, commuters will continue to have plenty of time to shave, apply eyeliner, and phone their mistresses. For those drivers among you who spend your standstill time fiddling with the radio, you may want to thank Garrett’s scientific mind before you curse his name. In 1921, after setting up the world’s first municipal radio station, WRR-FM (101.1), where he’d play records in between broadcasting fire and police calls, Garrett became the first to outfit his car with a radio. Who knows? If he’d had more time, Garrett might have invented Alexa Conomos.
Local writer Phil Harvey has written for Red Herring, Dallas Child, and UPSIDE magazine. He is currently the senior editor at Light Reading, a trade publication.