Ford says new tech could prevent 'phantom' traffic jams

Spontaneous slowdowns are caused by poor driving, the automaker says.

June 27, 2018, 8:27 AM

Ever been stuck in traffic, grumbling to yourself over the cause of an unexpected slowdown, only to see it dissipate seemingly for no reason?

According to Ford Motor Company, these "phantom jams" -- spontaneous traffic slowdowns with no obvious cause -- stem from poor driving habits, like breaking too hard or failing to change lanes to accommodate merging traffic.

The automaker has said it's now poised to do away with phantom jams forever, thanks to adaptive cruise control that regulates speed to maintain the distance between each car.

"It's not something that, when we were designing it, that we intended to do," said Michael Kane, who runs Ford's Driver Assistance and Active Safety program. "It was really fun to see the effect that the system could have."

According to Ford, every single car on the road doesn't have to come equipped with cruise control to make a difference -- even if it's just a few you'll see traffic begin to "dampen," Kane said.

It was a Vanderbilt University traffic engineering professor who first realized adaptive cruise control could actually impact that annoying, inexplicable, stop-and-go traffic that plagues commuters the world over.

When Ford saw the research, they knew they had to put it to the test.

So on Tuesday, the automaker deployed 36 vehicles on a test track in Detroit. When adaptive cruise control wasn't activated, vehicles bunched up during a slowdown. But with the technology switched on, traffic smoothed out.

"We had experimented on this in theory, and to see it in practice was thrilling for us," said Vanderbilt engineering professor Dan Work. "Humans, when we're not paying attention, we make these traffic jams worse. These adaptive cruise control systems, we showed, can actually out-perform the human drivers."