What is traffic sign recognition and do you need it?

Traffic sign recognition is the third eye you didn’t realise you needed, we explain how it works and its uses

James Wilson
Jan 31, 2019

Traffic sign recognition is an incredibly simple, yet incredibly useful bit of technology. In layman's terms, a car looks for road signs ahead and displays any pertinent information, such as speed limits or no overtaking zones, on the dash (or head-up display if equipped) in front of the driver.

Chances are you know the speed limits and overtaking zones around where you live and work, but traffic sign recognition really comes into its own when you are driving somewhere alien to you.

We’ve all been trying to find somewhere new, doing battle with local traffic and missed a speed limit sign or two. Traffic sign recognition is your safety net here, as cars fitted with it will tell you what the speed limit is so you can plough on with your journey in peace.

Most manufacturers are seeing the benefits of installing such systems so there is a wide range of vehicles to choose from.

 

How does traffic sign recognition work?

Without getting too geeky, most systems work using a forward facing camera hidden behind your rearview mirror. They scan the road ahead and identify certain road signs. Most can read speed signs, but it is increasingly common to find traffic sign recognition systems, which can identify other road signs such as no overtaking zones.

More advanced versions, such as that offered by Mercedes, will offer you the chance to jump to the new speed limit (with the press of a button) if you are driving using cruise control. There are even systems which will jump for you should you wish them to, so you never miss a speed change again – or in theory at least.

 

What are the benefits of traffic sign recognition?

The benefits are generally focused around driver convenience, which for many is great news. As mentioned above, it should take the stress off attempting to keep on top of speed signs when driving somewhere new.

Also, for those who spend a lot of time on the motorway where variable speed limits are becoming all the more frequent, many systems, such as Ford’s traffic sign recognition software, will identify speed limits displayed on motorway gantries.

 

What are the problems of traffic sign recognition?

Despite the advantages of traffic sign recognition, there are drawbacks. For starters, in more rural areas it is fairly common to see a traffic sign which has been engulfed by a hedge. Which could mean you and your car plough into a 30mph zone way above the speed limit, endangering other motorists and pedestrians.

Next time you are on the road, take a look at how many vans and lorries have little speed limit stickers on them. There have been reports of cars thinking these small stickers are the speed limits – not helped of course if motorists are driving too close to the rear of a van or lorry.

Normally these stickers say what the vehicle is limited to, which is fine on a motorway, but if you are in a built-up area, chances are you don’t want your car thinking the speed limit is 60 or 70mph. The worst case here is cars that automatically change to the new speed limit. That said, most cars of that capability will have adaptive cruise control as well, so will know there is a vehicle in front and not fly off to 70mph.

 

What comes next for traffic sign recognition?

As the technology becomes more widespread its capabilities will increase too, so it would be natural for the signs a car can identify to increase. There are also app-based traffic sign recognition systems for your Android, which could bring the technology to older vehicles.

 

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