April 12, 2020

Leveraging Connected Vehicles: Cars as Ants

By Barry Matlack, Vice President of Sales

It is nearing three weeks since the widespread shutdown of non-essential operations in many states due to the Coronavirus. As a result, cities are experiencing vast changes in traffic patterns – Los Angeles has recorded a 75% reduction in traffic and Chicago is not far behind. Some reports show that the curve is showing signs of flattening. How can we prepare for when employees return to their offices and students to their schools, given the unknowns surrounding when this will actually take place? 

Traffic in the world’s major cities will once again become clogged; as millions of drivers go back to their daily commute, it is becoming even clearer that waiting for cities to build expensive traffic-control infrastructure is not an option. Funding is limited and government budgets are strapped, plus there is a great deal of political deadlock – conclusion, we need some sort of ‘quick fix’. 

But how? Here’s an idea – let’s take a note from ants. Ants have been on this planet for at least 92 million years. We find them encased in amber that is far older than when dinosaurs became extinct, 65 million years ago. Humans?  We’ve only been around for about 50,000 years. So ants have survived and thrived for nearly two million times longer than people. And there are an estimated 1 million billion ants alive today, so clearly they know something.

Ants are social animals, much like humans. They have a complex system of division of labor, built around problem-solving (finding food, building a nest, caring for babies and the queens) and driven by effective, fast communication. Ants communicate using pheromones (chemicals), sounds, and touch. They exchange information using their thin, mobile antennae, which touch and also smell.  

What if we treated our vehicles like ants? What if vehicles exchanged information through their own antennae (sensors and WiFi)? In fact, they do.

Today’s vehicles are equipped with dozens of sensors, collecting information about internal systems, external hazards, and driving behaviors. This data is an untapped resource for cities and transportation agencies alike and it is massive. “Modern vehicles generate around 25 gigabytes of data every hour,” says Francois Fleutiaux, Director of T-Systems’ IT Division. 

The data from these vehicles represents a virtual network that is independent of the infrastructure maintained and operated by the public agencies. Connected vehicle sensors provide important information related to hazardous conditions, speed variations, intersection performance, and more. This data can help agencies and cities gain more visibility on their roads, supplementing the existing city infrastructure and providing information in more rural areas that may not be covered by the current ITS infrastructure.

What if our data from connected vehicles worked like an anthill? There is no Queen Ant or dictator ant; the system is highly decentralized. Information travels rapidly from ant to ant, and somehow the whole community knows what to do, to find and gather food as well as defend the colony. What if we could gather the data from connected vehicles, assemble it in a central location, and then analyze it quickly and effectively, and transmit the results to first responders? Our cities’ traffic could move far more smoothly. Yes, it does involve a central control system, which ants lack, but the key is the massive amount of information sent by individual vehicles, communicated effectively and analyzed in real time.

Such a system exists. In fact, systems like these are coming online today in areas like Las VegasTampa and even in rural states like Wyoming. Even bicyclists are getting into the game in Santa Clarita, California. The US Department of Transportation is supporting, and even in some cases funding, these systems with a wide variety of use cases. Implementing these systems widely could make our lives – and the lives of long-suffering commuters – much better and safer. The ants have known the secret for millions of years. And they’re happy to share it.

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