The Simple Stop Sign Gets Smart

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As much as the stop sign can seem like a niggling inconvenience, it’s essential for driver safety. If you can see it.

  • Engineers at the University of Texas, San Antonio are taking the stop sign into the future
  • Equipped with infrared sensors, the Smart Stop Sign can detect approaching vehicles
  • For now, it simply flashes as a vehicle approaches, but eventually it will communicate with autonomous vehicles as part of a vehicle-to-infrastructure network

Rural Areas Most Dangerous

Once you get outside big cities at night, it can be so dark it’s like trying to see through black ink. Stop signs blend into the landscape and motorists speeding down the highway can’t always decipher them, leading to deadly accidents. According to the Federal Highway Association statistics, over half of all roadway fatalities happen on rural roads. Did you know that 70% of the nation’s roads are in rural areas?

Engineers at the University of Texas, San Antonio (UTSA) in the Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering came up with a low-cost, simple solution that could save thousands of lives. This next generation stop sign is equipped with multi-pixel passive infrared sensors that detect a vehicle as it approaches the intersection. The sensors set off a signal beacon that trigger the stop sign’s flashing system.

“The sensor observes thermal signatures and processes them to detect passing vehicles,” said Zachary Balcar, a master’s student in the UTSA Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It distinguishes the vehicle’s direction of travel, estimates the velocity of its thermal signature and determines the classification of the vehicle.”

Smart Stop Signs Offer An Effective, Economical Solution

So far, the next gen stop sign shows some pretty good stats: 90% vehicle detection rate and a vehicle classification accuracy of 72 percent. Also, it’s pretty cheap to implement, always top of mind for cities and the taxpayers footing the bill. Other traffic sensing technologies such as magnetic loop inductors, video image processors and microwave radar can cost as much as $5,000. Compare that to an estimated $60-100 per unit for the smart stop sign.

The reason so many accidents happen on rural roads at night is because there isn’t any infrastructure to put electricity in place for safety systems. This new stop sign doesn’t rely upon the power grid. Drawing power from solar panels, it will function in all weather conditions too.

Developed with support from the Connect Program, a collaborative research program that is co-funded by UTSA and Southwest Research Institute, the system was recently recognized nationally by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. The team behind the smart stop sign also expects to adapt the technology to pedestrian detection, for border security and for vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Will Stop Signs Become Obsolete?

For the immediate future, this stop sign system offers a great stop-gap solution. Unintentional pun there. As cars become autonomous, there might not be a need for road signs at all. Right now cars already have cameras that recognize traffic signs and put them on display for the driver on the instrument panel or the Head’s Up Display (HUD). At some point, cars will be interconnected through the cloud, receiving and transmitting information so that outside directives like stops signs, traffic signals, etc., become obsolete. All this is very good news for safety and travel efficiency. Except… I think I might miss the California stop just a little.


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