Smartphone mapping and traffic news apps can be a big help on a highway commute, but the next generation may go beyond advising alternative routes to actually reduce congestion. Honda says it has recently tested an app that can delay the start of a traffic jam by as much as six minutes, while also improving your car's fuel efficiency by 20 percent. The secret to improving traffic flow isn't adding lanes to a highway or reworking an exit ramp, but in teaching drivers how to manage the brake pedal.
Urban dwellers have all been there. You're cruising down the highway, when suddenly traffic slows to a crawl. Maybe an accident is blocking progress, or a slew of cars are trying to merge onto the interstate. Five minutes later, when you reach the site of the major slowdown, all you find are a bunch of cars getting closer and closer together before speeding up and continuing on their way. The problem wasn't a major obstacle or hazard, but simply too many people braking too hard at the same time. So you pass the invisible stop sign and work your way back up to 55 miles per hour.
This is where Honda's smartphone app comes in. The system displays either a green or blue screen, visible at a glance. Green means your driving is aligned with the surrounding vehicles and the chances of congestion are low. If the smartphone app turns blue, that means your driving is likely to create congestion and the app will guide you to realign your driving with the surrounding traffic flow.
Apps ease traffic in tests
Honda didn't specify how its smartphone app helps get your driving back in sync with everyone else. My guess is that it advises you to brake more slowly, or maybe back off from the car in front of you. The company said, however, that when its app was tested in Jakarta, Indonesia between September 2012 and February 2013, traffic jams were delayed by an average of three to four minutes and fuel efficiency improved by 20 to 22 percent.
Honda tested two types of systems during its pilot project. In one case, drivers were outfitted with a stand-alone smartphone app that judged surrounding driving patterns. In the second test, multiple cars were outfitted with smartphone apps connected to a server. Those apps could learn from the server what other cars were doing, and then advise individual drivers how to get back in sync with traffic.
Ready to hit the road?
Honda's concept is an interesting idea and potentially useful. It may bridge the gap until we can turn over driving responsibilities to self-driving cars that would be far more efficient at making these judgments than exhausted commuters who just want to get home.
Overzealous braking, however, feels like just one aspect of traffic congestion, albeit a major contributor. A lighter foot won't solve bottlenecks created when highways shrink from three to two lanes in the course of a few miles. You'll probably never find a smartphone app that will convince the cutthroat driver in the lane next to you to let you in. And don't get me started on drivers who seem blissfully unaware that you're supposed to accelerate on the onramp so you're driving at highway speeds by the time you actually get to the highway.
Honda's latest smartphone experiment was just the first public road test for its new congestion minimization technology. The company hasn't announced any plans to release its smartphone app or whether this system might be built into car dashboards in the future.