Tuesday, March 11, 2008

bits, packets and cars

I live in the Silicon Valley, the birthplace of microprocessors and internet routers. The interconnect complexity of an Intel processor has been equated to a street level map of the US. Information, in the form of electronic charge, is managed and moved around this "mega city" at speeds of 20 million miles / hour.

Internet packets are routed around the world primarily on Cisco routers. The latest products can switch 256Gbps - more than all the cars on the planet moving thru one intersection every second.

So riddle me this. Why are the traffic lights in Silicon Valley so "19th century"? How many times have you been sitting at a red light along with 50 others cars from three directions while NO cars are moving with the Green light. You sit and wait until an unlucky car proceeds toward the green tripping it to red.

You can not proceed until someone else has to stop. The traffic lights are designed to maximize stopping - not traffic flow.

The engineers at Intel or Cisco could improve traffic flow in the valley by 15% to 30% by simply making one car wait an extra five seconds so twenty cars don't sit for 90 seconds. What do you think the savings in gas mileage would be? What would the savings in pollution be? The answers are obscene. The savings would far offset the cost of extra sensors 500 feet up the road from the intersections.

But maybe traffic engineers aren't so dumb. Maybe the money at Unocal or Chevron determines the optimization strategy, i.e. maximize gas consumption not traffic flow.

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