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Slime and tech: improving road transport and traffic flow

08 April 2014 #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews #Logistics #Truck #Van

Intelligent transport systems, connected vehicles and slime all have a part to play in shaping the traffic network and making sure it runs as efficiently as possible.

Bizzarely, mould recommends moving the M6 motorway to the east coast, for instance, while clever cameras paint a picture of traffic flow.

Moulding the traffic flow

Bizarre, but true. Slime mould is being used as a tool to plan road networks; and it works.

Researchers are employing a particular type of slime mould called physarum polycephalum to model routes.

It throws out branches from a central point to hunt for food. The unsuccessful branches die back. Acting like a miniature umbilical cord, the most successful one survives and thrives.

Researchers put the slime into a Petri dish then add food sources such as oat flakes to represent cities. When Professor Andrew Adamatzky, Director of the University of the West of England’s International Centre of Unconventional Computing, and his colleagues used such an approach to examine the efficiency of the UK’s motorway network, the slime advised that the M6 should be moved from the west to the east coast of the UK to improve links between London and Glasgow.

The slippery slime does not take terrain into account, but it can be obliged to react to the impact of congestion, flooding and other simulated events likely to impede traffic flow through the use of salt (slime retreats from it) or low temperatures (they slow down slime’s growth).

As a consequence, it may be possible for it to be persuaded to react to the impact of all the data now being generated by vehicles.

Not only will they increasingly communicate with each other – a development usually referred to as V2V to denote Vehicle-to-Vehicle technology – they are more and more likely to send data to local fixed assets too under V2I or Vehicle-to-Infrastructure banner.

That at least is the view of the Urban ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) Expert Group established by the European Commission.

In a report published last year  – “Guidelines for ITS deployment in urban areas – traffic management” – it said; “There is considerable scope for V2V and V2I to play an increasingly prominent role in urban traffic management by providing real-time information on the location and speed of individual vehicles with this information being communicated to other vehicles, traffic signals and traffic control centres and being incorporated in traffic management plans.

“The information generated can be used in daily decision-making, which helps to keep traffic flowing,” it continued. “The re-routing of traffic in the case of incidents is important in this respect.

“The possibility of direct messaging to the navigation systems of freight vehicles will also help to ease the flow of commercial transport.”

Volkswagen points out that V2V and V2I systems can alert drivers to what they might be faced with when they turn the next corner.

They may be warned that they are about to encounter the rear of a long tailback for instance, or a severe bottleneck as a consequence of road works. At the same time their vehicle will be transmitting information about the highway conditions it is encountering.

As well as aiding traffic flow in the short-term, and hopefully reducing the risk of collisions, the data collected can be used by planners to help identify a road network’s worst pinch-points; and do something about them.

There are difficulties however, a key one being that the WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) that is often required to transmit V2I information may not be present.

“The problem is that installing such infrastructure is very expensive,” says Dr Heinz-Jakob Neusser, Member of the Board of Management of the Volkswagen brand responsible for development.

“The German Ministry of Transport is trying very hard to create such an environment,” he continues. “The usefulness of the system was confirmed last year during a six-month field test in which Volkswagen participated involving 100 vehicles.

“Unfortunately the necessary requirements for comprehensive implementation are still absent at present.”

Millions of pounds worth of Connecting Europe Facility funding recently announced by European Union Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, Siim Kallas, may go some way towards resolving that and other transport infrastructure problems across the EU.

“I am convinced that this major financial boost will bring the expected benefits in terms of improved transport connections and that the value added by investing in genuinely European infrastructure will become plainly visible to investors, transport users and citizens,” he says.

Even without V2I, traffic control centres are not flying blind. They benefit from a constant influx of traffic flow information from CCTV, Automatic Number Plate Recognition ­– “beneficial in identifying traffic location and movement” says the Urban ITS report – probe vehicles that go out into the traffic and report back on the situation in real time.

Also, Real Time Passenger Information systems are used to track the whereabouts of buses so that passengers waiting at stops know when the next one will arrive and whether it is running late. Satellite navigation systems that alert drivers to congestion and tell them how best to get round it represent another source of information.

V2V and V2I are both closely tied to the explosion in onboard automatic safety systems now being deployed by vehicle manufacturers.

Take for example Mercedes-Benz’s latest Sprinter, which has Crosswind Assist fitted as standard as part of its Electronic Stability Programme. If the van is travelling along an exposed stretch of motorway and is suddenly buffeted by a howling gale then Crosswind Assist will react and prevent Sprinter from being blown into the next lane and potentially into the path of another vehicle.

The same van has Collision Prevention Assist as an option. Using radar to spot traffic hazards ahead, it alerts the driver if he or she fails to respond to danger then uses Brake Assist to slam on the anchors to maximum effect once whoever is at the wheel reacts and hopefully hits the pedal.

Should things go disastrously wrong then eCall may have to act. Planned for introduction on all new cars and light commercials sold in the EU from 1 October 2017, it will automatically summon the emergency services if there is an accident.

Perhaps the best way to aid road safety, cut fuel usage and improve traffic flow is to take the driver out of the equation for at least some of the time.

Known as platooning, it involves autonomous vehicles following a leader and fitted with technology that ensures they all travel at the same speed, keeping the same distance between one another and the lead vehicle.

They slow down together and speed up together leaving whoever is sitting behind the wheel of each vehicle free to do other things, safe in the knowledge that they can take full control and leave the platoon whenever they wish.

Because the vehicles all travel so close to each other – the distance may be no more than 6m – they benefit from lower air drag. That can cut fuel usage by up to 20% according to Volvo Trucks, which adds that road capacity is used more efficiently into the bargain.

It has been involved in the European SARTRE – Safe Road Trains for the Environment – project, which successfully completed the first demonstration of a multiple vehicle platoon. The three-year £4.5m European COMPANION research programme is now investigating ways in which platooning can be implemented on the public highway.

In this context it is worth noting that the 1968 Vienna Convention sets out that only partly-automated, as opposed to fully-automated, driving should be legal. The convention is used as the basis for legislation in many countries around the world. However, the UK has not officially agreed to the Convention, so the future of autonomous vehicles is in the hands of our elected politicians.

While platooning seems a long way from slime and Petri dishes, both approaches share the same goal; ensuring that the infrastructure is used to maximum efficiency given the unrelenting pressure imposed upon it.

That has to be worth occasionally relinquishing full control of your vehicle and putting up with a bit of mould.

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