We’ve all experienced the frustration of traffic jams that seem to come from nowhere — standstills that occur with no accident, construction, or obstacle in sight. Traffic shares a lot of similarities with fluid flows, including its waves and instabilities.
These disturbances propagate and grow when traffic surpasses a critical density. Once that happens, any small speed adjustment made by a lead driver gets amplified by the larger and larger braking of each driver downstream. Effectively, this creates a wave of slower speed and higher density that travels downstream through the traffic.
Each driver brakes more than the last largely because they can’t tell what the conditions upstream of them are. But that lack of knowledge may be less of an issue for driverless cars, which have the potential to communicate with cars and traffic sensors ahead of them. With enough automated vehicles on the highway, phantom traffic jams may become a thing of the past. (Video and image credit: TED-Ed)