Connected Cars: The End of Gridlock?

Cars are becoming more and more connected every day. GPS screens are becoming standard. Some cars have built-in wireless hotspots. Onboard computers monitor your car’s functioning and make you and the dealer aware of possible problems before they happen. But what about other uses of that connectivity? What about using it to create a future where there’s no gridlock?

What Causes Gridlock?
Think of the roads as an incredibly complex system, made of not just dozens, but hundreds, even thousands, of moving parts. In fact, think of it as a car itself. Now think of that time when one teeny, tiny thing broke in your vehicle. That’s what happens with gridlock: even one car slowing down at the wrong time can create snarls that last for hours.

That’s how complex traffic is. Another example: ever run into a spot where everybody just spontaneously slows down to a crawl for what feels like forever, and then picks up again just as inexplicably? It’s called a “shockwave”, and here’s a video of it in action:

Traffic is more than just annoying. It wastes valuable gasoline, it wastes even more valuable time, and it can even kill if ambulances and other rescue vehicles get trapped in it. Unfortunately, as more and more people get on the road, there’s going to be more and more traffic.

How Could Interconnected Cars Help?
Simple: if you know there’s a problem on the road, you’ll know not to get on it, as Ford explained in a presentation in Barcelona.

Cars, of course, measure how fast they’re going and whether they’re in stop-and-start traffic all the time: they’ve got a speedometer, after all. If cars start detecting bumper-to-bumper traffic on a highway, they can transmit out a message to other cars in the area to use alternate routes. Your vehicle might also do this in other cases, such as transmitting out to authorities that a car has been in an accident. Your car can then advise you that traffic is heavy on the freeway, and maybe you should consider taking the back way to work instead.

If this sounds a little familiar, it might be because your GPS is already using traffic reports to let you know which routes are fastest, and it might even adjust your route accordingly to avoid traffic. But this futuristic system does more than limit the number of cars on a clogged road, thus reducing the shockwave; it can measure where the shockwave starts, and warn cars off altogether. In other words, it won’t just limit gridlock, it will stop it before it starts.

And, over time, as it figures out where the problem spots are, it can alert transportation departments, giving them data to better tweak the traffic system.

When Will We See It?

So how soon will this gridlock-free utopia be coming? Not any time soon, unfortunately. For this to work, a certain number of cars need to be wired, and the government is still looking at privacy concerns and necessary regulations to implement these systems. Scientists still need to experiment. But the day is not so far off when gridlock will be a forgotten problem.

Of course, by then we’ll probably be flying to work in jetpacks, but at least when we drive it will be quiet. And our auto insurance rates will have gone down, too.

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