Reinventing the Traffic Light with Artificial Intelligence

May 27, 2022

Amidst the many bids to improve the everyday convenience of modern life, a transportation research group from Pittsburgh has developed a new artificial intelligence (AI) smart technology to help keep roads clear of congestion and get travelers to their destinations faster.

Reporter Peter Simek for Popular Science states that the group, known as Traffic21, is based at Carnegie Mellon University and working hard to maximize the efficiency of all major roads. “At each junction, a curbside controller cabinet is wired into the signal, and inside is a briefcase-size box made of brushed chrome. The container holds the components of the artificially intelligent Surtrac system, which makes decisions based on what it spies through the city’s traffic cameras. Short for Scalable Urban Traffic Control, it’s one of the first to gather information on vehicular flow and use it to adjust lights in real time,” says Simek, explaining how the technology functions.

With the Surtrac system, wait times and traffic jams have decreased with more success than ever before. Most solutions aimed at reducing vehicle congestion focus on adjusting or modifying the roads themselves, but the traffic speed always ends up filling in all of the newly created space anyway. As such, nature and living areas are warped and destroyed for essentially no payoff.

“If cars move more efficiently across fewer lanes, then municipalities can open up the reclaimed turf… Surtrac has competition for its share of the grid from tech giants and startups alike. Fortunately for the 22 cities already using it—including Atlanta and several New England towns—it’s relatively cheap, it’s easy to install and maintain, and it taps existing infrastructure like streetlight cameras,”  explains Simek.

Although promising, Surtrac does still have some flaws to work out. The flow of cars, trucks, and other motorized vehicles may be excellent with the new system, but pedestrians and bicyclists have paid a price for the efficiency. People traveling on foot or riding bikes end up waiting longer at corners and intersections while cars enjoy much shorter idle times due to the system's data collection tools (mainly cameras that auto-detect vehicles) have a bias for cars. 

The people of Traffic21 are working hard to overcome this setback. While Surtrac continues to grow both within Pittsburgh and across America, its team has been gathering data and reprogramming analytics in order for the system to equally take bicyclists and pedestrians into account alongside motorized vehicles. They intend to merge pedestrian data from mobile applications, route information from connected vehicles, GPS pins from electric bikes and scooters, as well as multimodal transit data. 

Smart streets that allow expedited travel are just around the corner, and long commutes could soon be a thing of the past. Capitol Tech offers many opportunities in Engineering, Engineering technologies, and Mechatronics where you can build innovative and groundbreaking inventions to improve the critical infrastructure in your community, and Artificial Intelligence where you can learn how to program them to properly perform their intended function, just like Surtrac traffic lights. To learn more about these programs, visit and check out the various courses and degrees offered. Many courses are available both on campus and online. For more information, contact, for Undergraduate, for Master's programs, and for Doctoral programs.