Lighting the way to good driving

20:34, Nov 23 2009

We're all familiar with cat's eyes, the reflective road safety devices that mark New Zealand's roads. An Auckland company thinks it has a better idea.

Smartstuds are road traffic devices that emit light rather than reflecting it. Sounds pretty simple - cat's eyes that light up by themselves, right? The studs are so much more than that, says Tim Crabtree, of 3i Innovation, the Auckland-based company that invented the devices.

"On today's roads, drivers face many distractions - from roadside advertising to GPS systems and mobile phones - and unfortunately, these daily distractions can result in accidents because of our lack of focus," he says.

"The 3i Innovations Smartstud system highlights dangerous or unique roadway conditions with intense focused beams of light. The studs draw drivers' attention back to the road subconsciously, without adding something else to concentrate on."

These studs, which act as a tool in optical road guidance, do more than keep cars in a straight line. The Smartstud product will soon be installed on Los Angeles' Interstate 110 freeway to create a dynamic roadway system of inroad lighting.

"The studs are designed to monitor traffic flow on a single lane, which, upon increase in traffic volume, will create a light barrier to open and close other lanes," says Crabtree. The studs are controlled by automatic sensors that feed information to an external source, which then switches the track current on and off through the power supply.

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"These smart road studs effectively gauge road conditions and traffic flow and open up a through-lane during peak times, subsequently easing the long lines."

Additionally, the studs control the speed of the cars with the pulse speed of the lights. "The concept was developed with sprinters, when studies found they ran faster when following a fast-paced sequence of flashes from studs in the ground," says Crabtree.

"We've applied that concept to the road - the pace of the studs' light emissions makes drivers slow down naturally. It takes conscious thought away, which is important when there is so much else happening while we are driving."

Smartstud systems are not powered conventionally. The design is based on patented high-efficiency technology called Inductive Power Transfer (IPT). Using IPT, power is transferred from a cable buried in the roadway to the markers without a physical connection.

"Each individual stud is wireless, which is, of course, the way our entire world is going.

"Because there are no wires connecting the studs to the cable, the studs are entirely encapsulated and sealed. Moisture and dirt cannot penetrate them, and roadway movement cannot cause connection failure."

As the cable is sealed beneath the road, conductors are never exposed, and therefore never need maintenance. Damaged studs can be replaced without an electrician within minutes, and the system never needs to be shut down to do so. The robustness of the Smartstud system means one less reason for roadworks - another common cause of traffic disruption.

Environmentalists can rejoice with the innovation of the Smartstud technology. A single power supply can power up to two kilometres of system, or 200 studs.

"We specialise in low-powered, long distance products," says Crabtree. "A 2km system only uses between 400 to 500 watts, which is less than half of what a microwave oven uses. The arrival of LED has meant a very low amount of power can create a significant quantity of electronic collateral."

Alongside its low cost, the Smartstud product's environmental friendliness has led to the studs being installed on more than 500 roads in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Smartstud systems have been installed in New Zealand in places such as the Lyttelton Tunnel in Christchurch and the Terrace Tunnel in Wellington, but the road condition-led technology used on the Los Angeles freeway is the first of its kind.

When can we expect to see these "dynamic lane" systems controlling car speeds and opening up new lanes as needed on New Zealand's motorways?

"Within the next 12 to 18 months, the public are going to see a big jump in lighted roading in New Zealand," says Crabtree.

"While our Smartstud products are mainly export-based at present, in the next two years, the number of road lighting systems in new Zealand will rise greatly. Between 50 and 100 lighted crosswalk systems have already been bought in Christchurch and Auckland, and many more advanced systems will be put in place as New Zealand catches up with the rest of the world's traffic industry."

The future of 3i Innovation's products on our roads also holds further technological possibilities. Crabtree says it is only a matter of time before studs that direct traffic upon detection of accidents and other hazards are developed.

Additionally, as we move away from relying on fuel-driven cars, 3i Innovation will develop studs for another special purpose. "There is a real prospect that we are going to be able to charge our electric vehicles on motorways on our way to work in the coming years."

The Press