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 heavy 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 Tuesday. In addition to reducing driver frustration, Labor said less stop-and-go driving means fuel savings and, by extension, less pollution.
The Vanderbilt University professor of civil and environmental engineering is one of a group of engineers and mathematicians from universities around the United States who are studying the problem of phantom traffic jams after a simple experiment in Japan a decade 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 slams on the brakes for whatever reason. The person behind them takes a second to react 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, when traffic clears, the drivers accelerate too quickly, causing more braking and yet more gridlock.
“We know that one car braking suddenly can have a huge impact,” Work said.
Last week’s experiment showed that some cars driving slowly and steadily could also work, for the better.
The experiment utilized 100 cars that traveled in loops on a 15-mile section of I-24 from approximately 6 am to 9:45 am each morning. Working on the premise that if 5% of the cars on the road acted together, they could reduce 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, which is already an option on many new vehicles. This technology allows the driver to set a car to drive at a certain speed, but the car automatically slows down and accelerates as needed to maintain a safe distance from the car in front. In the experiment, the adaptive cruise control was modified to react to the overall traffic flow _ including what happened far ahead _ using artificial intelligence.
The decision-making for the cars happened on two levels, Work said. At the cloud level, information about traffic conditions was used to create an overall speed plan. That plan was then broadcast to the cars, which used artificial intelligence algorithms to determine the best action to take. The researchers were able to assess the impact the connected cars had on morning traffic flow using a special 4-mile stretch of I-24 equipped with 300 polar sensors.
The experiment is a project of the CIRCLES consortium, a group that includes several car manufacturers and the US Department of Energy and Transportation. Other principal researchers are based at the University of California, Berkeley; Temple University; and Rutgers University-Camden.
Liam Pedersen is deputy general manager for research at Nissan, a CIRCLES consortium partner, who was in Nashville last week for the experiment. He said one of the exciting things about it is that it’s based on technology that’s already in many new cars.
“This is not autonomous driving,” he said. “This is something we could notice very soon.”
Asked if automakers will be willing to work together to ease traffic, Pedersen said, “I certainly hope so, because the system works best when lots and lots of cars participate.”
Last week’s experiment built one Work and his colleagues conducted in 2017 at the University of Arizona. This repeated the Japanese experiment, this time with a single self-driving car thrown into the mix. The self-driving car smoothed the traffic flow so that there was 98% less braking. This led to a 40% increase in fuel efficiency and a 14% increase in distance driven.
Researchers are still tallying the numbers on last week’s experiment, but Work said it “proved that these roadblocks can be reduced with the new automated vehicle technologies we’ve developed. It’s indisputable that improved automotive technology can significantly reduce phantom traffic jams when implemented at scale.”
However, he cautioned that the technology will not immediately eliminate congestion.
“When there are more cars on the road than the road can support, there will always be traffic,” he said. “But this can make that congestion less painful.”
Photo: Researchers at Vanderbilt University monitor live interstate traffic images and data displays on Nov. 17, 2022, in Nashville. They say they’ve successfully used artificial intelligence in a fleet of wirelessly connected cars to help ease rush hour traffic on an interstate in Nashville. The aim is to reduce phantom traffic jams – the stop-and-go congestion on crowded roads that has no obvious cause. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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