It’s sometimes argued that the long-term benefits of self-driving cars, such as safer roads, may not be felt with much impact until robotic vehicles account for the majority of traffic on the road. Until that happens, those unpredictable lumps of meat we call humans will continue to exert their own effects on traffic—continuing to cause accidents, for instance. But a new study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that the addition of just a small number of autonomous cars can ease the congestion on our roads.
You’ve likely seen the demonstration of phantom traffic jams where cars drive around in a circle to simulate the impact of a single slowing car on a road full of traffic. One car pumps its brakes for no particular reason, and the slowdown ripples through the traffic. Now, the University of Illinois research, led by Daniel Work, shows that placing even just a single autonomous car into one of those circular traffic simulations can dampen the effects of the phantom traffic jam.