Virtual Technology and Design Boosts Traffic Signal Systems Education

Monday, May 17 2010

MOSCOW, Idaho – How many cars can make it through an intersection before the light turns yellow? Why did that green light only last 10 seconds? And why do people sometimes hit every red light on the way home?

Traffic system engineers have asked many of the same questions. And educators have struggled to help engineering students visualize the complex systems for managing traffic flow and safety.

"The industry has been struggling with how to train students to have one eye on traffic and one eye on the traffic controller," said Michael Kyte, professor of civil engineering at the University of Idaho. "Traffic engineers need to see – to visualize – complex processes to understand the myriad components and design a system more effectively."

Kyte is principal investigator on MOST, a project to develop curriculum materials and a simulation environment for traffic signal timing, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and administered by the National Institute for Advanced Transportation Technology. MOST enables engineering students to directly observe how the signal timing parameters that they select affect the quality of traffic operations at a signalized intersection. While the simulation is helpful, it was missing a key component: more direct visualization of the processes that go on in the traffic controller itself.

"We can't just take our students to an intersection and allow them to change traffic signals for practice," said Kyte. "We needed something that allows us to get as close as we can to the real world environment without screwing things up."

Kyte raised the issue with John Anderson, assistant professor of virtual technology and design (VTD) in the College of Art and Architecture. Anderson's junior-level design class agreed to create an enhanced simulation environment that would work Kyte's existing simulation program, but create scalable complexity.

"Virtual Technology and Design emphasizes the use of visual environments to help solve real world problems," said Bryan Foutch, a junior in VTD from Spokane, Wash. "For our particular project, we wanted to create interactive technologies aimed at education. Traditional teaching mediums are static and good for basic information, but when you factor in complex, simultaneous systems, you need interactive tools."

The VTD students worked with graduate-level civil engineering students, who have questions associated with the beginning learning process.

"It's difficult to take years of experience and give that information to someone else. The current tools don't allow that experience to be transferred," said Foutch. "The engineering grad students understand the issues facing people new to the discipline. They're the ones with trouble understanding the current simulation, so their feedback helps us make this tool more effective."

Working together, the designers and engineers were able to address basic issues.

Kyte is pleased with the progress this year. "The Virtual Technology and Design students developed a tool that takes some of the data from the initial simulation tool and adds in a cool and informative look at timing process. It allows engineers to make connections between looking at traffic and looking at the timing process," he noted.

Another bonus is that the virtual tool is scalable. In the works is the ability to add in a railway, pedestrians, multiple intersections or other factors to make the system more complex. "Observing these factors at work at the same time helps our engineering students understand it better," said Kyte.

Foutch noted that the tool doesn't replace the expert educators, but complements their teaching. "It's a flexible tool that allows the expert to expand on a concept and show significance. At the same time, it allows the expert to pick apart the layers, addressing one thing at a time," he said.

In July, the VTD and engineering team will present the simulation to the Traffic Signal Systems Committee from the Transportation Research Board, a part of the National Academy of Engineering.

"We're excited to receive feedback from experts in the industry," said Kyte. "This is a simulation we hope to provide to educators across the nation. Anything we can do to improve the learning experience is valuable."

Kyte is seeking funding to continue the simulation development next year. "We want to be able to work on a traffic system in real time," he said. "We're just scratching the surface of what we can do."
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. The university is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit