Green light to the highest bidder?

The hard thing about writing comedy is that it all too often loses its punch by becoming reality. A few weeks ago, I joked that governments could make money by running real-time auctions among cars approaching an intersection, the highest bidder getting the green light.

In the current issue of Forbes is an article about a new technology being installed in Calgary's city bus fleet that allows those buses to trigger approaching lights to green. The result is public transportation that moves more quickly through city traffic than individual vehicles, saving the system a huge amount of fuel (2,000 gallons per bus per year) and a similar reduction in CO2 emissions.

Calgary is only the latest of 98 cities that have installed these 'signal preemption' systems, totaling 30,000 plus intersections. The transmitters were originally designed for emergency responders. The original systems, using infrared, were soon hacked, allowing those with a hacked unit to sail through town without stopping. Encoding has, at the moment, kept the new systems free from interlopers.

The system, as you might expect, is also used some places for personal privilege. In Dubai, for example it allows the ruling family to motor about without the nuisance of red lights.

The article did not explore the cost of fuel burned and gasses emitted by private motorists cooling their heels at red lights while the public transportation overrides one light sequence after another.

The auction idea? Today's comedy, tomorrow's budget-balancing stroke of genius.

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