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Goodbye traffic jams? New system from Honda could mitigate congestion

Honda anti-congestion system graphicThe thought of traffic can shorten people’s life spans. Getting caught in a jam can be the most stressful part of a person’s day; avoiding one has inspired countless tales of heroism from middle-aged men. No matter how many lanes are added to a highway, it never seems to go away. Honda is attacking the problem from a different direction. The Japanese company thinks the volume of cars is not what causes traffic jams, it’s the way they are driven. A new in-car monitoring system could encourage drivers to shape up.

Honda’s new system will warn drivers when they act in a manner that could cause traffic congestion. It does this by monitoring how frequently a driver accelerates and decelerates. As any racecar driver will tell you, smoothness is the key to good driving. Constantly adjusting speed causes everyone else to abruptly slow down and speed up, which inhibits the flow of traffic.

The Honda system will shame drivers into paying attention by showing them a color-coded rating of their performance. A driver can get a better score by driving more smoothly. This sounds like the eco-meter displays in hybrids; Honda’s hybrids have a graphic that changes colors depending on how economically a person is driving. It’s also the same principle behind police radar signs that display a car’s speed. Theoretically, if a person is made aware of their performance, and given a chance to correct mistakes in real time, they will be more considerate.

Honda says its system can raise the average speed of traffic by 23 percent, and reduce fuel consumption by eight percent. It could also prevent some rear-end collisions: when every driver is abruptly accelerating, then hitting the brakes, it’s easy to mistime something and end up hitting the car in front.

Honda plans to test the system on public roads in Italy this May, and in Indonesia in July. If the technology proves successful, Honda will sell it in production vehicles. After that, Honda plans to develop a second generation version that will allow vehicles to “talk” to each other, adjusting their adaptive cruise control to make traffic flow better. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently testing a similar system, called V2V (Vehicle-To-Vehicle communication). Honda says this version could increase speeds by another 16 percent and decrease fuel consumption by another five percent.

The NHTSA and others have proposed using robotic features like throttle cutoffs and automated braking to make driving and more efficient. Honda’s approach is novel because it tries to driver’s habits, rather than circumventing them with machines. That leaves the question of whether people’s habits can be changed by flashing lights.

Another unique aspect of this system is scale. Accidents are started by one vehicle, but improving traffic flow requires many vehicles to behave the same way. Will Honda’s new technology be effective if it is only installed in a small number of cars? If it does take off, your next car might be the biggest backseat driver of all.