The Invisible Referee

TRG's Interactive Traffic Control Exhibit

E-mail Print PDF


This micro-site accompanies the exhibit "21st century traffic control: the invisible referee", designed by the The Transportation Research Group at the University of Southampton.

This exhibit was shown at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in July 2011. It will also be showing at a number of free science and engineering events around the country throughout 2012. If you would like to see it please check back for more details at a later date...


Much of our road network is monitored by space-age "Control Offices". These are the invisible "referees" that aim to smooth traffic flow, for example, by varying the timings of traffic lights. The research behind this exhibit is in the mathematical models that are used to predict how traffic jams build up - and how these are used to program Control Office computers in order to keep the traffic flowing freely. At this exhibit visitors can explore the world of such "Intelligent Transport Systems" – and take the controls in a variety of interactive games to discover if you can smooth the traffic better than the scientists!

How does it work?

Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) is an interdisciplinary research area, which employs cutting edge sensing, computing and communications technology in order to monitor and improve traffic flow. The research is in ITS broadly and the mathematical modelling of road traffic that underpins ITS applications. This is an inherently complex area in which drivers attempt to optimise their individual journeys - but their interactions with each other and with the network can lead to surprising outcomes: the famous "Braess Paradox" describes how congestion can sometimes get worse following an "improvement" in the road network - and on the motorway, large-scale "phantom" traffic jams can emerge counter intuitively from instability in the short-range interactions of drivers. This exhibit reports on two recent strands of research; how dynamic speed limits stabilise motorway traffic flow and increase capacity, and how artificial intelligence may be used to adapt the settings of traffic lights.