NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As millions of people travel the interstates this Thanksgiving, many will encounter patches of traffic at a standstill for no apparent reason — no construction or accident. Researchers say the problem is you.
Human drivers just don’t do a good job of navigating dense traffic conditions, but an experiment using artificial intelligence in Nashville last week means help could be on the way. In the experiment, specially equipped cars were able to ease rush hour congestion on Interstate-24, researcher Daniel Work said on Tuesday. In addition to lessening driver frustration, Work said less stop-and-go driving means fuel savings and, by extension, less pollution.
The professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University is one of a group of engineers and mathematicians from universities around the U.S. who have been studying the problem of phantom traffic jams after a simple experiment in Japan a dozen years ago showed how they develop. Researchers there put about 20 human drivers on a circular track and asked them to drive at a constant speed. Before long, traffic went from a smooth flow to a series of stops and starts.
“Phantom traffic jams are created by drivers like you and me,” Work explained.
One person taps the brakes for whatever reason. The person behind them takes a second to respond and has to brake even harder. The next person has to brake even harder. The wave of braking continues until many cars are at a standstill. Then, as traffic clears, the drivers accelerate too quickly, causing more braking and yet another jam.
“We know that one car braking suddenly can have a huge impact,” Work said.
Last week’s experiment showed that a few cars driving slowly and steadily could have an impact as well, for the better.
The experiment utilized 100 cars that travelled in loops on a 15-mile section of I-24 from about 6 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. each morning. Working on the premise that if 5% of the cars on the road were acting together, they could lessen the prevalence of phantom traffic jams, the researchers equipped those 100 cars to communicate wirelessly, sending traffic information back and forth.
They also took advantage of the adaptive cruise control that is already an option on many new vehicles. This technology lets the driver set a car to cruise at a certain speed, but the car automatically slows down and speeds up as needed to keep a safe distance from the car in front. In the…