Could “air control towers” be used in highways?

In: Blog, Nodum traffic, Road ecology, Safety, Smart Mobility, Traffic management

Air control towers have achieved full aircraft coordination autonomy since their appearance. Traffic jams and accidents still occur on highways all over the world: is that a consequence of an obsolete roadway traffic management model?


The air transportation example

A total of 100,000 planes fly our skies every day, and 11,000 of them do so simultaneously. These aircraft do not freely travel the airspace, but they follow instead the path of imaginary air highways previously established and ordered according to their direction and flight level. In this way, an optimal air traffic control is achieved, and it guarantees the best plane route by basically following two parameters: the shortest possible distance between departure and arrival, and the aircraft security.

The same thing happens at airports: hundreds of planes take off and land every day in the same location. Thus, a careful management of the air traffic must be achieved in order to ensure the success of every flight. As we already know, the airport control tower is the one responsible for this task, creating hypothetical flight paths for each of the planes. The objective is always to achieve the greatest number of operations in the safest manner.

As seen, there is an existing infrastructure previously created for this transportation method, although it is not a physical one in this case. Any aircraft could objectively choose which “highway” to use by itself, but we all take for granted that the control tower needs to properly coordinate air traffic and guarantee its efficiency and safety.

Air control towers reach an optimal traffic management level

A different model is nowadays used in roadways

This concept is not found in roadways. A physical infrastructure defines all possible routes that vehicles can follow. However, as opposed to air traffic, the roadway does not have a control tower concept directing it all. Each car freely chooses its path through a previously created infrastructure instead. This route election freedom may result in a human error factor causing issues not found in air transportation such as congestion and safety issues (accidents). For this reason, this human error must be minimized, and better coordination of cars must occur to achieve a continuous traffic flux.

Elements for global traffic coordination are already in use such as traffic lights (they give priority among vehicles and other transportation methods), HOV lanes (they filter cars according to the number of people they carry), and toll lanes (they redirect the vehicles to a faster route in exchange for a fee). However, none of these focuses on the individual vehicle; instead, they manage all of them as general traffic. Would a “control tower” work in roadways? A control tower could guide each single vehicle, guaranteeing the effective flow of traffic.

Nowadays, it is kind of hard to think of this basically due to the following reasons: the current difficulty to simultaneously connect all cars, and the current lack of connectivity between vehicle and infrastructure. Luckily, the new automated vehicle industry may give a solution to both problems.

Connected vehicles could bring the solution

Let’s focus on the following example: a group of ants walking in a straight line. We can see them all perfectly aligned, walking at a constant speed and keeping an equal distance between each one of them. They work perfectly as a group thanks to the coordination they have between them. In their case, each ant is provided with antennas that act as receptors and information issuers. These antennas keep the ants connected with one another, and using this information they can stay informed about which route to follow, the proper distance to keep between one another, or any possible danger to be found in their path so they can made a proper alternate detour.

This basic example found in the animal kingdom can be applied to self-driving cars. They are also provided with sensors showing other vehicles’ locations or the appearance of an obstacle. Then, each car will drive their route considering these elements. However, these self-driving cars adapt their path and speed according to the existing traffic conditions. There is no general entity directing them through the best way to follow. This is where the concept of a “control tower” may be very useful to traffic management, as it could detect in advance the existence of an issue in the road, instead of instantly reacting to it once it encountered.

The key will be to figure out how to connect the vehicle’s receptor system with this “control tower” entity so they can speak the same language. In this way, the “control tower” we are talking about would not be a physical element as encountered in the air transportation. It would rather be a centralized software that could direct each car to the optimal path, reaching to create the perfect traffic management system. Then, agencies such as DOTs or highway management companies could work as traffic conductors. This “control tower” concept could redirect automated vehicles to the most suitable route, so the following is guaranteed: an efficient and safe traffic through all highways.