Traffic control learns lessons from leafcutter ants

Paul Raven @ 06-02-2009

leafcutter ants on the jobNature’s still got plenty to teach us, it seems. The latest target for researchers seeking to improve traffic congestion is the routing behaviour of leafcutter ants:

When opposing streams of leafcutter ants share a narrow path, they instinctively alternate flows in the most efficient way possible. Studying how ants manage this could provide the basis for a system of driverless cars running on ant traffic algorithms.

Driverless is probably the key word there… and there’s a short story just waiting to be written! One about an abandoned future-city with a tireless transit system of ant-AIs driving empty vehicles in ever-more efficient cycles. Sounds like a job for Paul Di Filippo, maybe. [image by MacAllenBrothers]

What BitTorrent can teach you about highway traffic control

Paul Raven @ 14-01-2009

highway vehicle headlightsThe guys at the RIAA may loathe BitTorrent with an unholy passion, but researchers at the University of California have found another use for the peer-to-peer protocols that could win it a lot more fans. In a nutshell, you fit cars with wireless modems and make them into a peer-to-peer network that works to reduce traffic jams:

Their Autonet plan would center around ad hoc networks of vehicles and roadside monitoring posts supported by 802.11 technology (the prototype uses 11b). The vehicles would essentially be the “clients” in such a system and feature graphical user interfaces to pass along information to drivers.

The caveat at the moment is that not enough roads have the monitoring infrastructure available to make the system work all the way from the big highways to the small streets. But given the proliferation of monitoring technology, not to mention the continuing (if now more muted) promises of municipal wi-fi networks, that can’t be far off. [via SlashDot; image by IM SNOT REAL]

Of course, what might make even more sense would be investing in the public transport networks so there was less traffic in the first place…

The paradoxical nature of traffic jams

Paul Raven @ 30-12-2008

Following on from the ULTra transit post, here’s a question about urban transport: what’s the best way to solve sluggish traffic flow around a busy street? Well, you could try shutting the street down entirely

To mathematicians, this may be a real-world example of Braess’s paradox, a statistical theorem that holds that when a network of streets is already jammed with vehicles, adding a new street can make traffic flow even more slowly.

The reason is that in crowded conditions, drivers will pile into a new street, clogging both it and the streets that provide access to it. By the same token, removing a major thoroughfare may actually ease congestion on the streets that normally provide access to it. And because other major streets are already overcrowded, diverting still more traffic to them may not make much difference.

There are links to some research papers and reports on traffic flow studies over at MetaFilter, but you might want to start with the more accessible Wikipedia article on Braess’s paradox. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it strangely comforting to realise that the world doesn’t always work the way we expect it to… though that could be because I don’t drive.

A world without trucks?

Edward Willett @ 19-03-2008

CargoCap_Halle_460 Trucks are noisy, smelly, intimidating if you’re in a small car, and just generally a nuisance. So why not get rid of them? Transport your goods instead via automated subterranean networks. (Via

Sound a little kooky? Maybe, but:

Some Western European countries are getting serious about transporting consumer goods through automated subterranean networks – introducing a fifth transport mode next to road, rail, air and water. This rare combination of low-tech sense and high-tech knowledge could lead to a further economic growth without destroying the environment and the quality of life. Super fast underground cargo transport is a favourite subject of futurologists. Yet, the key to the feasibility of the proposed systems is their very low but constant speed.

The goods would be transported via electric motors at low speeds of under 35 kilometres per hour along what would essentially be an automated subway line. Belgium, Germany and Holland have all explored or are exploring the possibility:

In Belgium, the University of Antwerp designed and proposed an underground logistic system that would transport large 40-ft containers from the newly built container dock in the harbour to an existing marshalling yard and a planned inland navigation hub on the other bank of the river…

In Germany, the Ruhr University of Bochum is working on a rather different concept, called the CargoCap project. The German system is designed for much smaller loads and makes use of unmanned electric vehicles on rails that travel through pipelines with a diameter of only 1.6 metres. Each vehicle, called a ‘Cap’, is designed for the transportation of two European standard pallets…

The German system resembles research that was conducted in Holland almost ten years ago. The Dutch then investigated the possibility of an underground logistic network that spanned the whole country…with one hub for every 1,000 to 5,000 homes, which boiled down to a maximum walking distance of 750 meters to pick up goods…

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: the biggest problem will be the initial cost. The proposed Dutch network would have cost 60 billion Euros ten years ago. Which is why nothing more has been done on it. But the German and Belgian systems might actually come to fruition…and make a little more room on the roads.

And after all, it’s not as if something like this has never been done.

(Image: CargoCap.)