“We wanted to create a pedestrian crossing technology that puts people first, responding to their needs,” says Usman Haque, founding partner of Umbrellium, the London-based firm. “The interactive road surface can generate a pedestrian crossing at any location, or create colored road markings to serve as guidance or warning to people who might be about to get into a dangerous situation.”
The crosswalk has advantages for vehicles as well as pedestrians. If no pedestrians are in the area, it disappears, reappearing only when a pedestrian stands facing the road. The crosswalk can also change size and shape — expanding to accommodate rush-hour crowds, for example, or moving its stop lines back in wet weather to accommodate cars’ longer stopping distances.
In a way, the crosswalk even gives road users eyes in the backs of their heads. Imagine a bicyclist riding beside a van as a pedestrian starts to cross the road ahead. The crosswalk’s computer calculates whether the cyclist is able to see the pedestrian. If not, it flashes a warning on the road ahead.
Money and time
More work is needed before it can be deployed — even in an experimental form, such as at Alphabet’s Toronto site.
“There is a lot more safety testing needed and a future iteration would need to explore further interaction through texture, height, and edges as well audible signals,” says Haque. “There is also more work to be done conducting material and durability tests.”
And reimagining millions of miles of roads won’t come cheap, warns Oliver Carsten, professor of transport safety at Leeds University in the UK.
“The main issue is the sheer cost of equipping the roadway with the necessary LED lights,” he says, adding that crossings like Starling are a bit of a gimmick. “What pedestrians really need is infrastructure and vehicles that allow them to cross where they want to.”
In the short term, pedestrians still need to pay at least as much attention to the dumb roads around them as to the smartphones in their hands.
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