Taking Driving Lessons from Ants

Ransom Riggs

I've been writing a lot about traffic and automobiles lately, and perhaps that's because I live in greater LA, where those things are ever-present problems, or maybe it's because I feel like almost everything we do in society, including how we get around, will have to undergo a radical reevaluation sooner rather than later.
And when it comes to a lot of those things -- including driving -- there's a lot we can learn from nature. Specifically: ants. If there's one thing ants and humans share, it's that we tend to travel in packs arranged along extensive, narrow lanes; the only difference being that our lanes are made of concrete, and the ants' seem to be invented by consensus.

Ants live and travel in nature's equivalent of metro LA; huge, congested colonies which, despite their density, usually seem to avoid total gridlock. But ants, as it turns out, do a better job of avoiding it than humans. That's because when they find themselves in a traffic jam, a study discussed in New Scientist has found, they communicate with the ants around them to find a way past the obstruction -- rather than sitting obstinately in traffic for hours and waiting for whatever's blocking to road to clear itself up. Here's how the German study worked:

They set up an ant highway with two routes of different widths from the nest to some sugar syrup. Unsurprisingly, the narrower route soon became congested. But when an ant returning along the congested route to the nest collided with another ant just starting out, the returning ant pushed the newcomer onto the other path. However, if the returning ant had enjoyed a trouble-free journey, it did not redirect the newcomer. The researchers created a computer model of more complex ant networks with routes of different lengths. The team found that even though ants being rerouted sometimes took a longer route, they still got to the food quickly and efficiently.

The idea being, of course, that if we could incorporate this kind of modeling into our own traffic patterns, life would be a whole lot better -- at least in the mega metro ant colony cities. If you have the scratch to pony up for a fancy new car, your built-in navigation system just might have something like this built in, but the ideal situation wouldn't leave those without satellite-linked nav systems in the lurch.