A traffic simulation system is helping drivers by predicting jams on Germany’s autobahn network up to an hour before they happen. The secret of its success is to take into account the way real drivers – and their cars – behave.

When engineers model the way road traffic flows they break the traffic down into three categories: freely flowing, jammed, and an intermediate state called synchronised flow in which dense traffic moves in unison, like marchers moving in step.

But this synchronised flow is unstable. One car pulling into another lane and forcing the driver behind to brake hard is enough to start traffic bunching up. This can quickly develop into a jam that propagates backwards through the traffic like a wave. Failure to predict this “pinch effect” has stymied past attempts to model traffic flow.

Now Michael Schreckenberg and colleagues at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany have developed a computer model that successfully reproduces the pinch effect. “It is the first model to reproduce all known traffic states,” says team member Robert Barlovic.

More here.