An elegant Highway Code – from ants?

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It’s not often you get taught a lesson about how to drive efficiently from a bunch of ants – so buckle up, literally.

At the Department of Biological Sciences in the Monash University, Melbourne, Australia they’ve been studying the traffic dynamics of the leaf-cutting ant (Atta cephalotes, if you’re interested).

Food for thought

The rate at which ants can get in an out of the nest is “likely to be closely tied to colony-level rates of resource acquisition”: The more efficiently they can get food the more of them can live. So, we can be sure they have a pretty good reason to get the flow rate of traffic correct – imagine ‘It’s a Knockout’, but with death for your team-mates if you fail.

The tortoise and the ant

They found that “maximum flow rates… occur at a relatively high concentration that keeps individual speeds well below their “free flow” maximum.” Bad news for boy racers everywhere: slow and steady is better for the greater good. Why? This can’t be correct?

“…we find a counterintuitive suggestion that flow rates… are higher when traffic is near a 50:50 mix of outbound and returning ants…[because] Mixed-direction traffic… help[s] disperse laden ants with reduced agility, thereby preventing inhomogeneities in the traffic stream that could clog the trail.”

The boffins at the Department of Biological Sciences found that when ants couldn’t overtake each other the ant traffic flow delivered more ants per minute than if they’d let them go nuts on a 2-lane ant highway.

Fuel for efficiency

So if we could deliver a line of cars on the motorway travelling close together in single file – like the ants – we could make traffic flows more efficient. And efficient always means less expensive – less expensive fuel bills, and a less expensive drain on finite resources. Surely this isn’t beyond us?

Engineering the flow

Nissan have a Distance Control Assist System. They launched it a few years ago. It’s able to “determine the following distance of the driver, as well as the relative speed of both cars”. It does this with a radar sensor installed in the front bumper. A kind of four-door ant.

They aren’t the only manufacturer to develop a similar system – in fact almost all of the (dwindling number) of majors do.

Isn’t it time we all drove like ants?

Citation: “Traffic dynamics of the leaf-cutting ant, Atta cephalotes.” By Burd M, Archer D, Aranwela N, Stradling DJ, University of Chicago Press, 2002 Mar;159(3):283-93.

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