As Tom Vanderbilt writes in his book titled Traffic – “You’re not driving into a traffic jam, a traffic jam is driving into you.”
We all know how annoying it can be to get stuck in a horrible traffic jam, especially when you are already running late for an important business meeting. Whether it is on a freeway or in the very heart of a big city, getting caught in a nasty traffic jam is never a fun experience. But in all fairness, regulating traffic and reducing traffic congestion is not exactly a walk in the park, especially during peak hours.
Traffic congestion normally appears whenever there are too many vehicles going in the same direction and too little road to cater to them. Sometimes, car accidents or road works can be the main culprits, but oftentimes we face a traffic phenomenon called “phantom traffic jam.” These seemingly unnecessary traffic congestions occur out of the blue and usually for no apparent reason.
How Phantom Traffic Jams Are Formed
You might have heard about the experiment conducted by several Japanese physicists in which they wanted to see how traffic jams are formed without a so-called bottleneck in the road. The scientists made a closed circular track in which they put 22 volunteers in various cars and instructed them to go in circle maintaining the speed of 30 km/h (just under 20mph).
Ideally, each driver would maintain the speed and manage to keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front of him/her. However, certain cars ended up in a standstill very soon, while others had the need to speed up, and the whole system broke down almost instantly.
The researchers realized that the main reason for these rather surprising results is that regular drivers seem to have trouble driving their vehicle at a constant speed, however easy this task may appear to be. As soon as one driver starts driving too fast and then overcompensates by braking too heavily, the driver behind him/her also brakes suddenly, and so on – creating a ripple effect that eventually leads to a complete halt.
Now, imagine this happening on an already fairly condensed freeway or in the city center during rush hour…
The Experiment With A Single Autonomous Car
With this in mind, the scientists from the University of Illinois, University Grenoble Alpes, University of Arizona, Yale, Penn State, and Rutgers University have recently recreated the experiment mentioned above, only this time they added one autonomous vehicle to the equation in order to see whether or not the results would be different this time around.
At the beginning of the new experiment, all the vehicles were driven by human drivers, and the traffic waves started occurring after only 80 seconds and continued to grow. At the 126-second mark, autonomous control took over one car and set its target speed to 23.4 km/h. The traffic jam started to dissolve almost immediately.
The results showed that engaging the autonomous control in only one vehicle could rather quickly reduce the ripple effect and the phantom traffic jam, especially when the target speed was set at 27 km/h, which is when the optimal results were achieved.
Applying These Results To Reality
This experiment suggests that just one autonomously controlled car can indeed significantly decrease the risk of traffic jams on the roads that don’t contain any bottlenecks.
The researchers managed to calculate that, when the speed in the experiment was set to at 27 km/h, the traffic jam wave was reduced by 80%, which is a pretty huge deal. If these results were to be applied to real-life situations, the experiment suggests it would reduce the fuel consumption by a staggering 40%, not to mention there would be much fewer traffic congestions.
However, we must take into account that we cannot rely on the autonomous cars completely as it is not entirely up to them (not yet anyway), and we must realize that the human element still plays a key role in any type of traffic, especially when it comes to its flow and dynamics.
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