NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Interstate 24 in South Nashville will serve as the site for a test dubbed the “world’s largest open-track traffic experiment.” The Vanderbilt University-led research project will include 100 “smart” vehicles driving in the regular flow of morning commute traffic to learn how to alleviate stop-and-go problems that seem to come out of nowhere.

That stretch of the interstate hosts the I-24 MOTION test bed, where 300 4K digital sensors were mounted on poles spaced 150-meters apart along the freeway.

“That is just so important to capture just the extremely obvious, but frustrating things like phantom traffic jams: ‘I’m stuck in traffic and I have no idea why’. Well, collectively, the way that you and I and everyone else drives, one person makes a small mistake, the driver behind it amplifies that mistake. And all of a sudden, the freeways come to a complete shutdown,” Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Dan Work, PhD, told News 2 last month.

“I-24 MOTION was exactly designed to be able to collect the data to try to understand those phantom traffic jams. You can’t see them with classical sensing technologies. If you can’t measure it, I don’t know how you’re supposed to improve it.”

Now, they’re putting those sensors to use in this “first of its kind” traffic experiment. It’s being led by a group called the CIRCLES Consortium, which consists of Vanderbilt University and several other universities, in coordination with Nissan North America, Toyota, GM and the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

They’ll test 100 AI-equipped vehicles in an effort to mitigate human-caused traffic jams.

“Data is going to support a wide variety of different use cases ranging from projects that commercial car companies are interested in to understand how the level one like adaptive cruise control systems that most folks are starting to see on cars that they have today, how those are interacting with the rest of traffic flow is really important,” said Work.

The vehicles used in the experiment include the Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4 and a Cadillac XT5. Each include an AI-equipped adaptive cruise control technology used in a previous experiment of 20 cars on a closed track. Researchers said just one vehicle equipped with the AI system changed the driving behavior of the other 20 cars, and alleviated the stop-and-go dynamic that often leads to phantom traffic jams.

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“You probably don’t notice the things about how your driving behavior can impact traffic behind you, it does,” said Work. “In the same way, we can make small changes to help these automated vehicles drive and make it better for the people behind us. I mean, what a better feeling than to be driving and actually making traffic better for the folks behind you. Because you’re helping smooth out the traffic and having technologies that do that automatically so you can just focus on getting to your destination, that’s what we’re really after.”

The experiments are scheduled to start Monday, November 14 and continue through Friday, November 18, 2022, between the hours of 5 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. In addition to learning about traffic jams, researchers also hope to find out how all of this can reduce fuel costs.

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Work told us he hoped the research from the I-24 MOTION test bed could be used for the forseable future.

“I really tried to give a comparison to what’s available today. People in my field work on datasets that are like 15 minutes long that were collected on a freeway in California in the early 2000s. You can imagine how many things have changed since then,” he said. “So to be able to produce data continuously that shows you how traffic was performing yesterday during an event, and today during bad weather, and the next day when someone is trying a new technology on a vehicle, and understanding that it’s really like we’re at the tip of a huge revolution in how we understand what’s happening on the freeway.”