Jul 312015

sydney e-ink signSydney is using temporary traffic signs utilising e-ink, in a surprising World-first.

It’s a clever bit of technology, without doubt, and is being trumpeted loudly as the future of traffic management; but I have to question whether the coolness factor overwhelms both potential savings and utility.

The signs in question are those yellow, special-event signs, that tell you that there’s a temporary clearway for the City to Surf and so on.

A unique Internet of Things ecosystem of digital displays has been designed to overcome the usual visibility, powering and connectivity issues of traffic signalization.

To reliably display road information, wireless signs have been built that communicate over the cellular network and don’t malfunction in the sun’s heat or during a power outage. The traffic signage with highly optimized power consumption integrates displays from US manufacturer E Ink® and a platform for managing e-paper traffic signs developed by Visionect.

While, on its face, there’s an obvious saving in ‘traffic signalization’ through just being able to type in the variable information instead of sign-writing it, I imagine they’ve been laser-printing out that variable info for ages now. So the difference between a printed sheet and the screen is marginal in terms of utility and probably only saves money over a fairly extended lifetime.

But leaving that to one side, if you’re going to have an electronic sign this is the way to do it: The signs are “100% self-sustainable traffic signs powered by solar energy, a natural resource that Australia has in abundance. This is possible because electronic paper technology is extremely energy efficient, using very little power, with additional power optimizations making the e-paper signs even less dependent on traditional power sources. ” Of course, it’s hard not to point out that individually the old-fashioned signs were even more energy-efficient, not needing any power at all.

The other downside with these signs is that the real money saving comes in terms of putting them up and taking them down. The company that makes the sign doesn’t say how much this costs Sydney, but cites Los Angeles putting up “558,000 temporary parking restrictions signs every year to the cost of $9.5 million”. That suggests that the way to maximise the returns on investment is to leave the signs up and only activate them when needed. In turn that’s both ugly and potentially confusing.

Finally, there’s the potential for hacking and the expense of damage from graffiti and vandalism.

As technology goes this is a clever solution. We will have cool temporary signs. Whether they will actually save money, do the job better, or even remain temporary are all questions worth asking.

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