Countering Traffic Jams with Swarm Intelligence

Nothing gets on drivers’ nerves more than a traffic jam. And yet these stop-and-go phases are avoidable. If we networked the same way bird flocks do, traffic jams would soon be a thing of the past. Thanks to the Urban Mobility Assistance (or UMA) app, which the Gläserne Manufaktur in Dresden is providing for the city of Dresden in cooperation with the Wolfsburg AG, this is already becoming possible.

Imagine that it is 8 a.m., and for once you were able to get through without any delays on your way to work. Sound good? It’s still a fantasy for many drivers, though. Getting stuck in traffic jams during rush hour is part of the daily routine in many cities.

Scientists all over the world have been searching for a solution to the problem for years. A new approach has recently come from Berthold K. P. Horn and Liang Wang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They say that drivers should not only observe the space between them and the vehicle in front, but also maintain the distance to the vehicle behind them to ensure a steady flow of traffic. That’s also how birds flying in flocks do it. However, the researchers don’t trust humans to drive so attentively, so they suggest implementing the approach in driving assistance systems and autonomous vehicles.

More swarm intelligence equals fewer traffic jams

Volkswagen and its subsidiary Wolfsburg AG also rely on swarm technology with their UMA app. UMA stands for Urban Mobility Assistance and includes app solutions that are gradually making the mobility of tomorrow a reality today. UMA navigation has been available for download (on the App Store and Google Play) since 2016. It compares data on the destinations of all the users and is thus able to optimize traffic flow. In addition, the underlying system also evaluates the current volume of traffic on all routes by capturing data such as the GPS position and speed of travel. It then uses the data to distribute the drivers in such a way that all of the known routes driven with UMA are optimally coordinated with one another.

“The way the algorithm works can be imagined as a city map on which each street has been characterized by the number of vehicles that can drive smoothly on it,” explains Dr. Gerrit Schrödel, Head of Mobility Research at Wolfsburg AG, where UMA was developed. Whenever there is a danger of a traffic jam forming, UMA automatically redirects the drivers. The more data the users feed the algorithm in their respective region, the more accurately it can make its calculations. Five to ten percent of traffic participants in a city are enough to achieve reliable predictions.

Autonomous cars can also benefit from the generated data

The data that is needed to optimize traffic is called “floating car data.” In order to generate data, a vehicle requires a device to send and receive information. Currently that is still the app user’s smartphone. In the future, though, it could also be the car’s on-board computer, for example. “Various types of traffic data are necessary building blocks for autonomous driving and for cleaner city centers,” Schrödel explains. With self-driving cars that operate using such data sources, traffic jams could become a thing of the past. We would still not be as free as a bird in our movements – but at least we would always be moving forward.

Schrödel and his team have two objectives for the future. For one thing, they would like to expand the UMA concept to other regions in Germany – ones in addition to Wolfsburg and Dresden. Cities and communities could connect their traffic management systems with the smart assistant, as is currently being done in Dresden, in order to manage their traffic digitally. They can actively point out construction sites or road blocks, for example, in order to evenly distribute drivers to alternative routes.

For another thing, Schrödel and his team want to network the navigations system even more closely with other UMA services. Wolfsburg AG also operates the app called “UMA Mitfahren” (or roughly “UMA rideshare”). It is intended to make it easier for users to form car pools. In addition, there will soon be an “UMAnauts” community. Cities and municipalities can use it to create incentives for their residents to use public transportation or car pooling opportunities and to avoid certain roads. That turns UMA into a type of traffic management hub with the goal of making mobility more enjoyable and faster for everyone.

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