Ever wondered why, when you’re driving along the 403 and, for no reason, in some lanes, cars
start to slow down? And in other lanes cars just sail through. I was interested in understanding
why when I was commuting from Hamilton to Toronto for a time last year. It’s what experts call
a “phantom” traffic jam – I was getting stuck because of the way people drive.
According to traffic researcher Dan Work, “small disturbances from one driver get magnified by
the driver behind. Pretty soon it’s speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down.” He took the
concept one step further with a driving test.
He had 22 cars drive in a circle on a test track. Drivers were asked to drive as they normally
would in rush hour traffic. The video showed that the vehicles ended up driving in a stop and go
pattern. The cars race around one side of the track, only to get caught in the traffic jam on the
other side of the track.
Then unbeknownst to the drivers, a self-driving car, with artificial intelligence, was introduced,
and the pattern changed. The car was programmed to smooth the flow of traffic and the
human drivers responded to the steady speed. As the self-driving car moved more smoothly, so
did all the other cars.
The self-driving car was able to monitor the speed of the other cars, the ones who were driving
too fast and the ones who were driving too slowly, and found the average speed. This is the
magic traffic-calming speed. Humans can’t seem to figure it out but artificial intelligence can.
Traffic researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in
California have been using computer modeling to simulate different traffic scenarios to test
what self-driving cars can to improve traffic.
The computer models show the self-driving cars can figure out, on their own, how to improve
efficiency when cars are merging on to a road or moving through an uncontrolled intersection.
There’s also an energy savings component — mixing regular human-driven vehicles with one
self-driving car in a controlled setting, reduced fuel consumption by 40 per cent. That’s pretty
amazing when you think about it. And the fuel savings is not just for the self-driving car, but for
all the other cars that are in the traffic flow.
Whether you like it or not, some level of automation is coming to a roadway near you. The
technology is already available as an optional feature in some vehicles in the US. These systems
use an advanced version of cruise control that allows you to set the amount of space between your
car and the one ahead. Researchers say that can help keep you driving more smoothly –
and benefit everyone around you.
If you’ve ever driven on Ontario’s highways during rush hours, then you know that something
has to be done – this just might be the answer.