The AI lights guiding drivers through one of Melbourne’s busiest tunnels

The AI lights guiding drivers through one of Melbourne’s busiest tunnels


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Transurban claims its artificial intelligence “pacemaker” lights have cut travel times in the Burnley Tunnel by up to 50 seconds, vindicating its decision to spend $13 million on the technology.

The toll-road operator installed the green LED lighting six weeks ago to help drivers keep pace in the three-kilometre tunnel – which runs beneath the Yarra River connecting the West Gate Freeway to the Monash Freeway – considered one of the busiest sections of road in the country.

Data from Transurban shows the green pacemaker lights are helping reduce time spent in the tunnel by 50 seconds per trip.Credit: HiVis Pictures

The AI-generated lights are programmed to travel 15km/h faster than the speed of traffic moving through the tunnel at any one time, but not beyond the 80km/h speed limit.

Drivers are encouraged to keep pace with the lights to maintain speed up the steep 65-metre ascent, which is where traffic tends to crawl before exiting the tunnel.

Phil Naulls, Transurban’s general manager of operations, said analysis of traffic flows for the past six weeks showed there was a 15 per cent increase in speeds during the morning peak (7am to 10am) and of 12 per cent from 7am to 7pm.

“There’s three per cent more traffic going through, and they’re all going through approximately 10 per cent faster – in some cases, 17 per cent faster,” Naulls said. “That’s more than twice what we were expecting.”

The Burnley Tunnel lights were inspired by results from a pacemaker installed in the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line road and tunnel in Japan, according to Naulls.

“That has very similar problems to the Burnley Tunnel. It’s very deep, it’s very steep coming out,” he said.

“And their data showed that through the advent of this pacemaker technology, you could help drivers maintain speed.”

The lights in the Burnley Tunnel target the psychology of the driver, Naulls said, and were a “visual nudge” to speed up.

“It’s a five per cent grade [incline] for over a kilometre, that’s quite hard [to maintain speed], and throughout that process, drivers lose their perception of how fast they’re going,” he said.

The lights have had their sceptics, including Rod Barton, Victorian upper house MP for the Transport Matters Party.

Barton remains unconvinced the lights will be effective and doubts they will address poor driver behaviour, such as those who fail to keep when not overtaking.

“Also, people can’t maintain their speed because they are intimidated by the size of the trucks and amount of traffic in there,” Barton said. “Putting disco lights in the tunnel – I’m not sure if that works.”

But Naulls said that, even if drivers felt like they weren’t going any faster, the data showed they were.

“Although you as an individual driver, you might feel the [green] lights are going past you and you can’t do anything about it, when we’re looking at all of the data, everyone on average is going faster,” he said.

Despite concerns raised at the outset of the plan about driver distraction, Naulls said the lights were deliberately designed not to strobe or flash distractingly to drivers or passengers.

“We would never put in something which we thought was going to be detrimental to the safety,” he said.

According to Transurban, there has only been one accident in the tunnel since the lights were installed – a truck brake failure, unrelated to the lights – and there were also early indicators that air quality had improved.

Transurban also operates Domain Tunnel, which runs westbound between the Monash and West Gate Freeways, but Naulls said there were no plans to install the lights in the Domain Tunnel because it didn’t have as much congestion.

The tunnel lights can be programmed to different colours, and Naulls said Transurban had been given road safety auditor approval to trial a blue colour scheme in the future.

“But we won’t make those changes quickly,” he said. “We’re going to be running green on white for a long time.”

The $13 million lights were paid for entirely by Transurban, which leases the section of road from the state government.

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