So, I guess LED roadways are going to be a thing?

Every other week, it seems as though someone’s tinkering with our roads. I’m not talking about the bajillion-dollar infrastructure investment promised by our current president, which would fill potholes and shore up crumbling bridges. I’m talking about new materials for roads that allow them to do new things: harvest sunlight, charge electric cars, and so on.

At first, such pilot projects seemed like so much crazy talk, but now they’re so commonplace, it’s obvious that they’re a thing. Even if they never come to fruition, they’ve encouraged urban planners to think about streets as active elements in the environment, not just passive pathways. Which is pretty cool, IMHO.

The latest demonstration of this kind of thinking involves an LED crosswalk that uses sensors and cameras to let drivers know what pedestrians are up to. Fast Company reports:

Cameras monitor the street from each end, using the data and machine learning to identify whether someone is on a bike, or walking, or driving a car or truck, calculating the speed and trajectory of each road user, and then generating LED-lit patterns that stop traffic, highlight where bikes should wait, and help pedestrians cross. The lights are embedded in high-impact plastic strong enough to handle the weight of cars.

Over time, the system learns the shortcuts people take across the street, and reshapes the crossing to fit those natural paths. The idea was inspired by ants, which leave a path of pheromones for other ants; the process is an example of “stigmergy,” a way of generating complex systems without planning. (The new road design is called the Starling Crossing, short for “STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING”). The system can also learn where crossing is safest, and guide pedestrians to those locations.