Audi LogoThe road to automated vehicles keeps getting shorter with every advance.

One of the companies leading the charge is Audi, the luxury automaker owned by Volkswagen. The latest innovation will allow Audis to talk to traffic signals.

The 2017 A4 small sedan, 2017 A4 Allroad hatchback, and the 2017 Audi Q7 three-row SUV will be the first Audis with the capability. Traffic light information technology will be added to these models built after June 1, 2016. Equipped Audis should be on the road before the end of the year. Even so, there are many hurdles left for the Audi technology before it becomes connected or commonplace.

Vehicle-to-Infrastructure

Vehicle-to-Infrastructure capability, known simply as V-to-I, is essential to the development of automated vehicle systems. The broader, long-term aim is an endless exchange of safety and operational data between vehicles and transportation infrastructure. It’s interesting to think that materials from today’s auto recycling could be used for tomorrow’s automated cars. Considering the massive changeover that will take place when society moves from traditional cars to more automated ones, recycled materials will be essential to meeting the demand.

Even so, Audi leadership emphasizes that this is its first foray into V-to-I. The company is not touting the traffic light information system as a safety feature. The system is advertised strictly as a convenience for the driver, but it’s easy to see how it could reduce crash situations.

A dashboard countdown starts as a driver approaches a green light that will soon turn red. This acts as a warning that the car cannot make the green. It should result in fewer “uh-oh” moments where drivers run red lights because they can’t slow down in time. This, in turn, could reduce related crashes.

At a red light, the driver will see a countdown that anticipates the green light. This relieves the anxiety of waiting. To encourage safety, the light disappears a few seconds before the light turns. Audi expects this to ensure that the driver pays attention to the intersection’s traffic before proceeding.

Different Cities

For now, cities will be switched on individually. Only five to seven cities will even be in play this year. The company hasn’t revealed where the system will launch. It’s always hard to be the originator when a new technology relies on existing infrastructure to achieve its goals. There will be many redlights that aren’t sophisticated enough for the interaction. Furthermore, connectivity will require the cooperation of numerous geopolitical entities, i.e. states, cities, counties, etc.

This redlight technology will open up some new possibilities. Audi’s technology could someday be applied to the car’s stop/start functions, an increasingly common system where the engine pauses during longer stops. Perhaps the system will be tweaked to suggest the right speed to match a road’s traffic light pattern. In another logical move, it could link to the navigation system.

Audi and Volkswagen have been testing automation-related technologies for a decade or more. Other carmakers are doing the same. The short-term goal is to reduce crashes, reduce congestion, and trim fuel consumption while the long term goal is total automation. The car industry must hurry to catch up with the self-driving projects at Google and Tesla.

Just as Audi’s technology is one step, the challenges with V-to-I systems aren’t the only hurdles. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications is another essential piece of the puzzle. For automation to be successful, vehicles must be able to talk to one another, sharing data similar to that used for V-to-I purposes.

When you consider all of the cars on the road today, it’s hard to imagine the sheer size of the system much less a scenario in which secure communications are possible, but that’s where the competition is headed at a breakneck pace. Certainly that’s what will need to happen to make the best use of smart technologies like Audi’s redlight-connected system.

In the meantime, a handful of Audi drivers have a new tool. Other automakers are sure to follow Audi’s lead.