Dec 12, 2022 - News

Researchers zero in on Tennessee's I-24 to study traffic jams

Research underway on I-24 traffic patterns. Photo: Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt University

New technology launched last month that could make a four-mile stretch of Interstate 24 in Middle Tennessee "the most studied freeway on Earth," according to a Vanderbilt University engineer who is an expert in traffic jams.

  • Equipment has been installed along I-24 as part of the project.

Why it matters: The area, dubbed I-24 MOTION, will give researchers unprecedented insight into traffic and could steer different efforts to make our commutes a little less painful.

  • "This thing is like an MRI, when the rest of the world is looking at traffic with an X-ray," Vanderbilt engineer Dan Work tells Axios.
  • "It allows us to understand so much more about how human driving behavior can generate traffic jams."

Zoom in: About 300 pole-mounted sensors were installed along the area on I-24, known as the testbed, to generate anonymous traffic data. The testbed will allow researchers to understand how cars move through traffic with fine-point accuracy that is unavailable elsewhere.

  • Work says one of the early areas of interest is "phantom traffic jams," when individual driver errors snowball until traffic is reduced to a glacial stop-and-go.

Driving the news: The first research project using the testbed took place last month, with support from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. departments of transportation and energy. It was led by a coalition of research institutions and agencies including Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

  • Nissan North America was among multiple manufacturers that participated.
  • Researchers deployed nearly 100 Nissan vehicles with AI technology that adjusts cruise control speeds based on surrounding traffic.
  • Vehicle trajectory data drawn from the testbed will help measure if those cars have a ripple effect that helps ease traffic on a broader scale.

The intrigue: Work says the first study represents “the tip of the iceberg.”

  • He says the testbed’s highly detailed, real-world data on the ways individual drivers move within traffic is a pioneering development that makes Nashville the epicenter of world-class research in this field.
  • "It's basically going to help shed new insights into the nature of traffic jams that will eventually lead to better technologies to manage it."

What they're saying: "When it comes to transportation and mobility in Tennessee, we are at a critical juncture," deputy governor and TDOT commissioner Butch Eley said in a statement.

  • "We are confident that this project and others like it will further strengthen Tennessee's reputation for being a hub of automotive excellence."

The bottom line: "I'm pumped," Work says.

  • “I don't have to go to the other side of the planet to try to run traffic experiments."
  • "We've got researchers from the other side of the planet coming to see us in Nashville, you know, working on problems here in Middle Tennessee."

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