Traffic Control Centres (TCC) are expensive pieces of infrastructure tasked with the problem of sensing, surveying, monitoring, and actively interfering with traffic flow in road networks.

Figure 1 provides a broad overview of how a TCC operates. The controlled system is
a network of roads equipped with sensors and control effectors. Two-way flow of information from and to the field is effectuated by the IT infrastructure maintained by the TCC. Network operators are managing traffic in real time based on streams of information converging to the traffic control room. They have to decide which objectives and policies to support and how to implement them by managing the available control device.


Figure 1: schematic of a TCC.

This is a most challenging and highly complicated task, encompassing diverse hardware and software systems, which have to be operated following specific regulations and procedures, in support of policies and objectives defined by network operators or wider political bodies. The complexity of the traffic flow management problem is due to the often chaotic nature of human behaviour, the diverse needs generating the individual trips, the constraints imposed by regulations, e.g. safety, and the objectives TCC pursue, e.g. delay minimization or emissions reduction.

Different control architectures can be conceptualised for performing the same tasks. Currently, the most common architecture adopted by TCC owners is that of a centralised control structure, allowing room for decentralised operations under strong supervision. A lot of money have been invested in this kind of infrastructure resulting mostly in static networks of sensors (loop detectors, CCTV etc.) and control effectors (traffic lights, variable message signs etc.). Usually, it is within this framework that control systems for particular traffic management applications are designed.

With the advent of highly equipped vehicles and vehicle automation, Vehicle Automation and Communication Systems (VACS) are changing the system architecture of traffic management. VACS are treasure coves of information as a lot of data can be extracted that can help address a variety of needs, e.g. commercial, infotainment and traffic management. From the control engineering approach such information is of little help unless it is explicitly used for positively interfering with traffic in real time.

In this sense, VACS are becoming both the sensor and the control device. They are both the means of information collection and transmission, and of actively interfering with traffic. Operating within a highly robust, secure and high-performance communication network, static sensors and control systems will become obsolete and a memory from the past or at a best a fall-back system. Fundamentally different operational requirements are in effect compared to those of centralised architectures posing new challenges for control design of network-wide vehicular flow.

The control technology for completely automating a vehicle is largely available.
Of course there are challenges, see e.g. a previous entry in IFAC’s blog (Link here). However, going from the individual vehicle to the aggregate behaviour of several thousands of vehicles and control of their collective interaction, is an entirely different control problem and in many respects more difficult to address. A fundamental change in thinking tailored for this new road / communications infrastructure / vehicle / driver system is necessary.

Many different scenarios can be envisaged, including:

  • The compulsory intervention by a TCC authority to vehicle controls. This implies that full control of the vehicle is delegated to a traffic authority. Acceleration, speed and position trajectories are decided by a higher level system supervising an area and deciding on the optimal, according to some societal notion of cost, vehicle operation. Dedicated lanes for segregating manual and autonomous vehicles could be used as well, although this is very difficult particularly for urban environments.
  • Partial intervention by a TCC authority. In this case vehicle control is assumed (or partially assumed) by a traffic authority should certain conditions arise, e.g. a congested road section or around an area near the approaches of an intersection.
  • Freely acting informed drivers. In this case, it is the drivers’ intelligence that takes over as a regulator of traffic under the influence of information communicated to them through an appropriate human machine interface. This scenario does not exclude the use of autonomous vehicles, but the decision of allowing a traffic authority access and control of a vehicle is left at the driver’s discretion.

Are you ready to give up control of your car for the sake of traffic management? Are you willing to delegate your vehicle’s control to a different authority, other than you?

Although the answer seems to be “yes” when this question arises in the context of the individual vehicle platforms, it may not be so when it is posed in the context of everyday commuting and travelling. Leaving aside institutional and legal issues, there is this question of whether people will accept losing their freedom of action operating their own car. There are situations where a “yes” or a “no” seem to be clear. When you are stuck in a solid block of congestion and you are immersed in a stop-and-go situation, it seems much preferable to either use the car as an office and work on the computer or as a TV set and watch a movie, leaving the vehicle to crawl its way to the destination. When riding in the countryside, a lot of people would respond with a “no” as they would drive manually themselves just for enjoying the experience.

But what happens when while commuting to work you believe that what is suggested or the way your vehicle is operated (lets say by a TCC) is not the best for you? It may be the best on a societal benefit level (although not necessarily so), i.e. the “common good”, but not on an individual level. Many people will answer “no” to this question, irrespective of whether we think of this as an egoistic response. Furthermore, the very notion of been forced to allow access and delegate control of an object considered private may be unacceptable by a lot of people from the general population. They cannot be neglected nor their choice be banned since they are legitimate road users. Their existence shapes the properties of the traffic flow process and hence they affect control design. In other words, there are strong cultural issues involved, which affect the efficiency of any large area traffic control design.

Designing vehicle based control systems supporting autonomous operations requires focusing primary on the individual vehicle; but designing network-wide traffic management controllers requires focusing on the broader picture of spatio-temporal traffic dynamics and on the way individual vehicles interact with other vehicles and the infrastructure. All three scenarios outlined pose daunting challenges from the technical side, even if autonomous vehicles allow us to treat them as “ballerinas” in the daily commuting dance. The scenario of freely acting informed drivers, although the most challenging of the three, seems the most appropriate, politically rewarding and easier to promote to the public.

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Article provided by:
Apostolos Kotsialos 
School of Engineering and Computing Sciences
Durham University, United Kingdom
IFAC TC 7.4 (Transportation Systems)