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New Research Shows Ford's Adaptive Cruise Control Can Minimize ‘Phantom' Traffic Jams

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【Summary】Ford Motor Company has teamed up with researchers at Vanderbilt University to demonstrate that the widespread use of its adaptive cruise control can reduce traffic jams caused by drivers constantly accelerating and braking.

Eric Walz    Jun 29, 2018 12:51 PM PT
New Research Shows Ford's Adaptive Cruise Control Can Minimize ‘Phantom' Traffic Jams
author: Eric Walz   

Driving in stop and go traffic is incredibly frustrating for most drivers. However, without being caused by an accident, this type of traffic is often caused by drivers themselves, as drivers often accelerate too fast and brake abruptly or too early, causing the drivers of all of the cars behind them to brake as well. This behavior often slows traffic to a crawl.

Ford Motor Company has teamed up with researchers at Vanderbilt University to demonstrate that the widespread use of its adaptive cruise control can reduce traffic jams caused by drivers constantly accelerating and braking.

The Ford and Vanderbilt University researchers demonstrated this week that these so-called ‘phantom traffic jams' could be minimized with widespread use of adaptive cruise control (ACC) which is available on many makes and models. Adaptive cruise control automatically matches the prevailing speed of traffic, allowing the driver to set a fixed following distance from the car ahead.

The team conducted what is believed to be the most realistic demonstration of its kind, showing that existing technology could help minimize phantom traffic jams, which appear to happen for no reason and can cause hazardous traffic backups.

The test was conducted on a closed Ford test track in Detroit using 36 drivers lined up in three rows of twelve vehicles that simulated normal highway traffic. The lead vehicles in each lane slowed from 60 to 40 mph to mimic a traffic disturbance.

Without the ACC technology, the drivers each braked harder than the vehicle ahead, which led to a braking disruption that became more pronounced further down the traffic stream. Drivers not using ACC amplified the initial braking event, in some cases to the point where traffic slowed to a crawl.

For the second part of the test, the 36 drivers drove the same course without using ACC, requiring them to manually brake and accelerate the vehicle. The results showed that vehicles using adaptive cruise control reduced the impact of a braking event more than those vehicles without the technology. Even with just one in three vehicles using adaptive cruise control, the test yielded similar results in reducing traffic.

The test was repeated with all vehicles using adaptive cruise control set at 62 mph, just slightly higher than the lead vehicles to ensure the vehicles remained in a constant platoon. In these demonstrations, the ACC systems outperformed the human drivers in almost every braking situation.

In one of the tests, the ACC actually suppressed the braking wave so the last car in the lane only slowed by 5 mph instead of coming to a stand-still.

"A fun Fourth of July family road trip can quickly become irritating when traffic slows to a crawl – especially once you learn there was no reason for the gridlock," said Michael Kane, supervisor, Ford Co-Pilot360 Technology. "We encourage Ford owners who have adaptive cruise control to use it during their summer travels in the hope this smart technology today can be that first step to help ease commutes."

Poor driving habits, such as not using turn signals, distracted driving, slow reactions times or unnecessary braking are the main causes of phantom traffic jams. For example, once one driver hits the brakes, a chain reaction occurs for all of the cars traveling behind that driver. As the other drivers tap their brakes, the entire line of cars slows down or stops, which leads to traffic.

"For years, traffic researchers and engineers have been looking to smart vehicle technologies to reduce traffic congestion, whether that's vehicles that talk to each other or vehicles that can predict the road ahead," said Daniel Work, civil engineering professor at Vanderbilt University. "This demonstration was a unique opportunity to understand how commercially-available active driver-assist technologies can be used to positively influence traffic flow."

Smart Technologies Can Reduce Traffic

Work, along with lead PhD researcher Raphael Stern, have been working with the support of the National Science Foundation to determine how smart technologies can provide a pathway to fewer traffic snarls, as well as reducing fuel consumption. The two plan on publishing the results of the Ford demonstration in an upcoming academic journal.

"Unlike the traffic jams caused by accidents or road construction, phantom traffic jams appear out of nowhere," Work released in a statement. "Combined, traffic backups cost the typical American commuter on average an additional 41 hours a year sitting in traffic at a cost of $1,400 per commuter." These figures take into account lost productivity, fuel burned while idling and increased wear and tear.

"The fact that we saw a commercially-viable ACC system fully suppress the traffic backup is quite impressive," Work added. "And while we know this won't happen in every situation or in every circumstance, it's very promising to see that commercially available ACC systems can already have a desired effect in normal, everyday driving scenarios."

The team also reduced the number of ACC active vehicles to 33 percent. This is the low threshold researchers have long believed could help suppress phantom traffic backups. The results were similar to the full ACC demonstrations. So if just one out of three cars is using ACC traffic can be reduced.

"The big takeaway from all of this is it's to everyone's benefit to practice good driving," Michael Kane, supervisor for Ford's Co-Pilot 360 Technology, said in a release. "Give ample space between you and the vehicle ahead, stay alert, and that will always help traffic flow more smoothly and help us all get to our destinations on time."

"Adaptive cruise control systems don't get tired or distracted, they're consistently looking at the vehicle ahead," Kane added. "Plus, they are programmed to provide more consistent distances between vehicles so they can better respond to the speed and distance of the vehicle ahead."

Ford's adaptive cruise control technology was originally introduced in 2006 and has been consistently updated to function in a variety of road conditions.

Until cars are fully autonomous, ACC appears to be an important technology to reduce traffic jams caused by humans.

Ford currently offers adaptive cruise control on 71 percent of its U.S. models.

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