An AI that lets cars communicate might reduce traffic jams

An AI that lets cars communicate might reduce traffic jams

A communication system between cars reduces ‘phantom traffic jams’ and is more achievable than self-driving technology.


Andrew Paul

Published Nov 23, 2022 4: 00 PM

Traffic jam seen in car's sideview mirror

Even the briefest human pauses add up to big bottlenecks. Deposit Photos

Did you know there’s a specific term for the times when you encounter sudden, inexplicable vehicle congestion on the interstate despite no discernible culprit such as rubbernecking or an accident? It’s called a “phantom traffic jam,” and was first identified around 12 years ago by researchers in Japan conducting a simple experiment. Despite telling 20 human drivers to all drive at a constant speed around a circular track, even the briefest instances of individuals’ pressing their brake pedals compounded on one another, resulting in those recognizable traffic fits and starts.

This automotive variation on the “butterfly effect” has been carefully studied ever since, and a research group is now approaching the finish line on a potential solution devoid of any sort of half-baked “self-driving” system. As Associated Press recounts, a recent experiment has shown instances of phantom traffic jams can be reduced by linking cars’ into a single communication network via utilizing newer vehicles’ adaptive cruise control systems.

[Related: The future of open city streets could start with smarter traffic lights. ]

A growing number of cars are equipped with a sensor array which can automatically slow or speed up the cruise control depending on how close to another vehicle in traffic. Researchers recently set 100 cars traveling in a 15-mile circuit along Nashville’s I-24 from about 6 a.m. to 9: 45 a.m. each morning with their smart cruise controls not only enabled, but able to connect with one another. AI algorithms can adjust drivers’ speeds by combining information from multiple cars located at different distances from each other on the road. The exact numbers are still being calculated, but the AP notes that one researcher explains, “It’s unquestionable that enhanced automotive technology can significantly reduce phantom traffic jams when implemented at scale.”

It’s important to note that this is most certainly not self-driving car tech, but instead a strengthened driver assist system that can be scaled upwards to great a network of sharable information for vehicles. These programs could be seen by commuters on the roads before any self-driving vehicle. “This is not autonomous driving. This is something that we could realize very quickly,” said Liam Pedersen (a deputy general manager for Nissan research who assisted in the experiment).

[Related: Autonomous driving project Argo AI is shutting down. ]

Better traffic conditions will not only ease commuters’ mornings and evening stress levels, but also reduce the number of stop and starts. Vehicles will use less gas and emit less pollution by using less gas. Although it remains to be seen whether enough automakers will want to participate in such an arrangement, at least one employee of the company is keen to see it happen. “I certainly hope so,” Pederson told AP when asked if they hope carmakers will join a potential future program, explaining that “the system works best when lots and lots of cars participate.”

Andrew Paul

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