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Siemens’ system can estimate traffic density and take control of traffic lights in an emergency (Photo: Siemens)

Siemens is testing an emergency evacuation system that uses information from drivers' cellphones to ease traffic flows in an emergency situation.

The test is conducted by Siemens Intelligen Traffic Solutions in Harris County, Texas, which includes the city of Houston. A major hurricane in 2008 required the evacuation of thousansd of residents in the greater Houston area.

In the pilot project, traffic light timing systems register traffic flow and adjust the phases of red and green light accordingly.

Drivers can, at the same time, download digital maps showing traffic density data collected by the systems. And in an amergency, the system can take control of all traffic lights.

Siemens' traffic light timing system estimates estimates the number of vehicles by registering signals emitted by the drivers’ cell phones. The company then uses its own software to calculate traffic density. It claims to generate reliable data even if only a few drivers have their phones switched on.

The system has been installed at 400 intersections in Harris County. Siemens said the plan calls for standardized communication between emergency vehicles and the infrastructure so that traffic lights will automatically turn green whenever a fire truck, police car, or ambulance approaches.