Traffic Ghost Hunting

Few experiences on the road are more perplexing than phantom traffic jams. Most of us have experienced one: The vehicle ahead of you suddenly brakes, forcing you to brake, and making the driver behind you brake. But, soon afterward, you and the cars around you accelerate back to the original speed—and it becomes clear that there were no obstacles on the road, and apparently no cause for the slowdown.

Because traffic quickly resumes its original speed, phantom traffic jams usually don’t cause major delays. But neither are they just minor nuisances. They are hot spots for accidents because they force unexpected braking. And the unsteady driving they cause is not good for your car, causing wear and tear and poor gas mileage.

So what is going on, exactly? To answer this question mathematicians, physicists, and traffic engineers have

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus15 min readTech
Reason Won’t Save Us: It’s time to accept the limits of how we think.
In wondering what can be done to steer civilization away from the abyss, I confess to being increasingly puzzled by the central enigma of contemporary cognitive psychology: To what degree are we consciously capable of changing our minds? I don’t mean
Nautilus10 min read
Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language: The confounding consistency of color categories.
When Paul Kay, then an anthropology graduate student at Harvard University, arrived in Tahiti in 1959 to study island life, he expected to have a hard time learning the local words for colors. His field had long espoused a theory called linguistic re
Nautilus10 min readTech
The Implant That Can Control Your Brain: This nanoscale device meshes seamlessly with your neurons.
Shaun Patel has such a tranquil voice that it’s easy to see how he convinces patients to let him experiment in the depth of their brains. On the phone, in his office at Massachusetts General Hospital (he is also on faculty at Harvard Medical School),