There is a ton of interest and money getting pumped into research about traffic congestion right now, it’s a hot topic both with research scientists and with people in the automotive industry. Auto industry execs want to find ways to give their cars an edge in heavy traffic and make driving safer overall, and scientists want to finally figure out the complexities of traffic jams.
Recently, researchers at the Dresden University of Technology discovered why ants are so much better at managing traffic congestion than people are. The answer: decentralization. In an ant highway or walking route, there’s no central planning, if an ant comes from a path that is getting overcrowded, it will direct any new ants to a different path. Each ant does this on their own. And now some scientists are developing software and systems that could allow human traffic to work in the same way.
The key is to find a way that would allow cars to communicate with each other and share information, so oncoming cars can know if they’re headed toward a congested road, and can take a detour. One such system already in existence is the CarTel project, which is managed by Hari Balakrishnan, an MIT professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science.
Mr. Balakrishnan’s system captures massive amount of traffic data using a fleet of 50 limousines and taxis outfitted with mobile sensors that pick up real-time information on the location and speed of the vehicles as well as the condition of the roads. The data is fed back to a central computer which then calculates the traffic patterns and can predict the optimal route. The system works well now, supposedly saving Mr. Balakrishnan 10 minutes on his commute to work. But the more vehicles outfitted with the sensors, the more powerful the system would be.
In a more comprehensive CarTel system, cars would need a way to quickly connect to the central computer, so Mr. Balakrishnan has developed a quicker method of connecting to a Wi-Fi network. Usually, it takes a few seconds to locate and link up to a Wi-Fi hotspot, but his technique can find and connect to a network in 400 milliseconds. That’s crucial to the system since cars would be zipping past Wi-Fi networks too quickly to connect using the traditional method. By accessing the hot spots, the cars can better transmit the data.
Another project uses a low-bandwidth infrared signal to allow cars to communicate directly with each other instead of to a central computer like the CarTel system. It’s a joint project between Boston University, the University of New Mexico, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and it behaves much more like the ant colony since cars would be communicating directly. And since cars are lined up with each other on the road already, it gives a perfect line-of-sight for infrared communication. Allowing cars to talk to each other directly can theoretically create a huge network of information, since each car would be getting information not just from the car directly in front of it, but from cars well beyond that who have already sent back information. With a system like this, or the CarTel system, drivers would have access to a huge pool of communal information, which may just make traffic jams a thing of the past.