The Hive Mind

As smartphones become more powerful and more connected there are subtle phenomenon that are very powerful that can go by unnoticed. For years I either walked to work or took public transit but now in the Pacific Northwest I commute by car. Since the surroundings are new I pay much more attention to what is going on than I used to in Chicago.

In Chicago, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to optimize your travel if you are driving alongside major roads such as I290 or the Dan Ryan. Unless you really, really know what you are doing it is not recommended to get off the highway in many Chicago neighborhoods and just to follow your mobile navigation blindly. Thus in Chicago when I was in bad traffic it pretty much looked like this – a speed of zero and stuck crawling ahead.

The first generation of car navigation tools told you how to get somewhere with the most efficient route, taking standard traffic into account. The new generation of navigation apps, however, have real-time information and continuously re-adjust the “recommended” route based on traffic, accidents and construction.

In Portland the navigation apps (through bluetooth and my radio, so I am not handling them directly) frequently direct me off the main road and onto side streets. Since violent crime is miniscule here (compared to Chicago) I often take up Google Maps (which gets a lot of real-time and accident information from Waze) on their offered routes and go skittering through local neighborhoods off the highway towards home.

What is fascinating to me is often how rapidly the navigation apps cause a “wave” of activity as everyone receives a real-time traffic update simultaneously. I can see a lot of cars pull off on exits prior to downtown (likely due to an accident up ahead) and start taking side roads as their apps direct them to do so. If you would have framed this out twenty years ago, it would seem like something out of science fiction:

Imagine a world where a centrally directed super computer controls car navigation for millions of autonomous automobiles and directs them to their unique destinations in the most efficient manner, calculating construction, traffic and accidents on a continuous basis.

This world exists today, in cities where it is feasible to exit the highway and use alternative routes to your destination. And the central supercomputer is either Apple Maps or Google Maps (or some of the newer auto navigation systems that incorporate real-time activity) and the receiver is found in every mobile phone around the country, which in turn is connected to your stereo to guide you with a human voice to your destination.

What is also interesting to me is whether or not at some point the apps themselves need to “predict” how their directions will in turn impact downstream events. For example, at the time the accident occurs, the main road slows down, and then it recommends that cars pull off the highway and onto side streets, which are relatively open at the time of the event. However, as soon as this recommendation is made, waves of cars follow the recommendation and all of the sudden the secondary route becomes more congested (and slower), which to some extent negates the original instructions received. Do the apps in turn have to “estimate” what percent of cars on the road will accept their alternative instructions, and adjust the times accordingly? In a more advanced world (very possible), Google probably uses the car by car information to see if individuals accept the new route and probably adds this probabilistic determination into their analysis.

This sort of problem is analogous to automated trading, where you not only have to predict what criteria cause you to buy or sell, but you need to anticipate what other market participants will do at the same time (second order effects) for optimal results.

Another interesting element of this is that we can more efficiently use our infrastructure of roads if these effectively centralized dispatch methods cause us to optimize all routes simultaneously. I am certain that many individuals on formerly quiet roads curse these car apps since their neighborhoods now are flooded with “through” traffic on days where the main arteries are clogged with traffic. This is conceptually similar to the “capacity utilization” problem which says that the most efficient way to leverage assets is to use them all the time, since many of them are idle most of the day. These mapping apps go a long way towards leveraging all the available assets which in turn reduces their average cost across all users (as taxpayers, at least).

Cross posted at LITGM

17 thoughts on “The Hive Mind”

  1. I saw this yesterday in Los Angeles. I was driving up the 405 (as we say in LA) and I check the radio traffic news. I don’t use an app as I (thank God) only commute once or twice a week. The traffic is on every ten minutes. I mostly listen to my iPod but can flip to the traffic with a button push. The northbound 405 has two big electric signs in Long Beach that give the time (The way we measure distance in LA) to LAX, which is not far beyond my destination. If at 6 AM it gives the time as 20 minutes or less, I am OK to stay on the 405. If it says 30 or more, I get off by going up the 110 (The Harbor Freeway) to the 105 and then west. The distance is a bit longer but avoids a jam. Yesterday morning, the sign said “20 minutes” but a minute later I heard the traffic news describe an accident in the car pool lane about 2 miles ahead of me. I was right at the 710 (Long Beach Freeway) so I got off the 405 and went a longer course taking two sides of the triangle.

    I got to work on time but am not sure it was worth it. This was about 12 miles father distance. And, I noticed the 105 traffic heavier so others probably heard the same traffic news.

    Life in LA in 2016. I spent 40 years commuting 15 minutes ot the hospital and my office. Now that I am retired, I commute into LA.

  2. By the way, the same company asked me to work today but rain was forecast and rain early in the rainy season in LA does horrible things to traffic so I said no.

    The rain is the first in months and all the oil in the pavement floats and cars skid all over. After a month of rainy season it’s not so bad.

  3. “Unless you really, really know what you are doing it is not recommended to get off the highway in many Chicago neighborhoods and just to follow your mobile navigation blindly.”

    It’s not quite as bad now since they tore down Cabrini-Green. You can still stray off the beaten path and drive through bad neighborhoods, but mostly the main thoroughfares were designed to keep those remaining places isolated.

    Cabrini-Green was a like a minefield right in your path. Accidentally take a wrong turn trying to get from the Kennedy Expressway to downtown and you could end up in the middle of sniper’s alley.

  4. I have read recently that Google Maps has been sending a lot of people into canals and off cliffs in Europe or Britain, I forget where, because people, especially Asian tourists follow the maps and ignore simple rules like staying on the road.

    I guess it was GPS I was reading about.

  5. Mike K .. I think those are extreme examples but certainly possible with a combination of driver task fixation and faulty maps. I saw a news story awhile back about a woman who hung her car up trying to turn onto a railroad track in an area I’m familiar with. She probably was being directed to a small road parallel to the tracks but didn’t understand where she was supposed to turn. I’ve found myself turning into blind alleys that the mapping software thinks are through routes, and in rural areas I’ve been directed to routes that are more direct but sometimes close to a goat track (thank goodness I was in my truck and not my wife’s car). I try to take the directions with a grain of salt now.

  6. There was a flap a few years ago about homeowners, real estate types, and community action groups being upset that the navigation programs were designating certain neighborhoods and locales as more dangerous than others. The Mercedes/BMW types following their (early generation) GPS systems were finding themselves in areas they considered unsafe and the GPS developers were reacting to their customers concerns by not routing traffic through these “unsafe” areas. The neighborhood groups complained that such designation was a form of red-lining and would affect property values and the ability of the neighborhoods to grow out of the rough shape they were in. As I remember, the GPS manufacturers backed off, and that is why blindly following GPS instructions can take you to places you might not choose to visit.

    As an old school navigator who can still read a paper map I can find my way around without the GPS (though I do use it routinely and I like the traffic avoidance feature). I use my experience and knowledge of the city to avoid dicey areas, especially when it gets late. I do worry about my millennial children who will go wherever the voice coming from their phone tells them to go.

  7. “I do worry about my millennial children who will go wherever the voice coming from their phone tells them to go.”

    I got a Tom Tom for my daughter when she began driving but it would take her crow flies routes and she was always calling me to help her get back on track.

    One thing about Tom Tom that annoyed me is that it is a European company but I could get cards for Europe when I went there and planned to drive, They apparetnly wanted me to buy the whole thing.

  8. Our roads here jam very easily. There are two views on who is to blame: (i) The Anglo-Saxons, or (ii) The Danes.

  9. Our roads here jam very easily. There are two views on who is to blame: (i) The Anglo-Saxons, or (ii) The Danes.

    Not the Normans? :)
    I work out of my home, and am very grateful I don’t have to commute. If I want to go to the grocery store, I need to remind myself to not go during commute hours.

  10. “What did the Normans ever do for us?”

    Well they turned cow into beef and pig into pork.

    The terms for growing the animal are Anglo-Saxon but the term as it is eaten, is Norman.

    Does that suggest anything ?

  11. In the late ’80s, I was a courier driver in LA. I knew the times of day when certain routes would be heavily trafficked, and had alternate routes that I would take.

    In Portland, it seems to me that when one route goes really bad, the traffic all over town gets really bad. Portland’s main problem in this regard is that it has nothing like the arterials that LA has. Back in the day, if I needed to get to, say, Santa Monica from downtown LA, I could take Wilshire, Santa Monica or Olympic as an alternative to the Santa Monica Freeway. Portland doesn’t have anything like that.

  12. Portland is a bit like Tucson with one freeway through it. Tucson is not that busy and the 10 is at the west side of town. Also, no river, or lakes like Seattle which is even worse than LA.

  13. Waze and similar apps reduce traffic for drivers who don’t use them. The apps are thus analogous to express lanes. However, unlike the case with express lanes, there appears to be little ideologically based popular opposition to the apps.

    Because drivers change their own behaviors in response to changing traffic conditions, Waze et al are self-adjusting. In this regard they are unlike automated trading programs, which for the benefit of the program owners must take account of market participants’ changing behavior. There is no admin at Waze who wins or loses as drivers change their behavior.

    IME Waze is most helpful for deciding between several known routes, and for finding new routes in unfamiliar areas, particularly when traffic is heavy. It occasionally makes serious errors, but then so do drivers using maps.

  14. Jonathan – I probably should have been clearer in my theory. At the time when Google tells you to take an alternate route, they give you an estimate like “it will take you 15 minutes and you will save 5 minutes from your current route”. The question is – if you took that alternate route, would it in fact take you 15 minutes? Or does it take you 15 minutes ASSUMING THE FACTS AT THE TIME OF THE RE-ROUTE or does it really take 17 minutes because the alternate route is going to get more crowded as cars peel off the road and leverage it? So is Google going to factor in the amount of individuals taking the route when they propose it to you? That was specifically what I was saying. I guess I could test it by leveraging their route and see if it is off by a few minutes every time. It is the slight deviations like this that let the astronomers figure out that orbits were in an ellipse not round as everyone assumed :)

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