January 23, 2015

“Taking Traffic Control Lessons — From Ants”

One of our “Next Generation Transportation” participants came across this in Wired.  Of course, had to share.


“They never get stuck in traffic,” said Audrey Dussutour, a University of Sydney entomologist. “We should use their rules. I’ve been working with ants for eight years, and have never seen a traffic jam — and I’ve tried.” …

In the latest findings, published in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Dussutour’s team found that ants leaving the colony automatically gave right-of-way to those returning with food. Of the returning ants, some were empty-mandibled — but rather than passing their leaf-carrying, slow-moving brethren, they gathered in clusters and moved behind them.

This seemingly counterintuitive strategy — when stuck behind a slow-moving truck, are you content to slow down? — actually saved them time. …

The results are an example of how individual behaviors optimized to serve a collective good can ultimately benefit the individual as well. If humans would let a network take the wheel, these principles might manage our own congested thoroughfares.

“We essentially would have to hand over control of the vehicle to a collectively intelligent system that would move all vehicles from their source to destination,” said Marcus Randall, a Bond University software mathematician. People would be reluctant, he said, but “accidents would be virtually non-existent and travel would become much more efficient. …

“One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism,” said University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider.

“Drivers optimize their own travel time, without taking much care about others. This leads to phantom traffic jams which occur without any obvious reason. Ants, on the other hand, are not egoistic.”


More here.


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  1. A row of cars is moving along a busy street. Every so often there’s a break in the oncoming traffic permitting anyone to turn left without delay. Yet almost no one turns in those breaks. Instead they wait until they’ve seen an opportunity to turn pass them by and then put on their signals to turn at the next street.

    It’s my belief that most drivers don’t even see those opportunities. They’re so absorbed in their thoughts that taking advantage of a situation never even makes it into their brains.

    In many parts of Vancouver turning 1 block early is advantageous. Most side streets are through streets (no dead ends, barricades, school yards, etc.) and parking is usually more plentiful a bit farther away from popular destinations.

    Turning when the opportunity presents itself would therefore be the logical behaviour for a 100% selfish driver who cares not about anyone else. Turning when the opportunity presents itself is also most beneficial to all road users so the “ant” who thinks only of maximizing the system would also do it.

    But almost no human driver engages in this behaviour, instead insisting on turning left when there’s a mass of oncoming traffic.

    There are many other situations where drivers behave in ways that are detrimental to both their own progress and that of everyone around them. Until we can figure out how to eliminate this stupidity (or do away with human drivers altogether) we will remain inferior to ants.

  2. Ethiopia understands. (Link above) Just as it used to be going around the Arc de Triomphe.

    Jaipur is fun too. youtube.com/watch?v=pLUm3Q-7iZA
    Keeps you awake.

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