What ants, termites and bees can teach us about traffic control

America’s love affair with the automobile has been glamorized by the image of the lone driver in a sports car on an empty, country road. The pavement glistens as the morning sun strikes the freshly dewed surface … and, well, we all know the rest. We know the reality of our current highway system as well: the tragedy of accidents, lost time in traffic jams, and the degraded environment and health.

Transportation is now the second most expensive consumer item in the United States, behind housing, and takes up nearly 18 percent of the average household budget. Moreover, the 13 million gallons of oil consumed every day, at a cost of about $1 billion, are largely wasted, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. Less than 0.5 percent of the energy in the fuel of the typical automobile actually moves the driver. The rest is busy heating up the road and tires and moving the mass of metal that is the car.

Many innovations are being developed to address these issues: alternative fuels, lighter and stronger vehicle bodies, new drivetrains and recharging systems. One solution set that has not gotten as much attention, but could yield real short-term dividends, has been inspired directly by nature.

It’s called swarm intelligence, and is the phenomenon that you might see in a flock of birds or school of fish or swarm of bees. Despite twists and turns and dives, the collection of animals seems to move as one, and no one individual collides with another. The same mechanisms at work in the swarm could someday eliminate the accidents and lost time that currently cost the United States nearly $400 billion a year.

What makes a flock of birds stick together

In the flock of birds, for example, three activities were discovered to be taking place and have been modeled: alignment, separation and cohesion. Each bird steers in the average heading of the flock, stays a certain distance away from his neighbors, and steers according to the average position of these neighbors.

This is an example of so-called “emergent behavior.” Here the eventual outcome is not dictated by one rational choice, but by the direct and indirect interactions of individuals acting alone, without a global awareness. High-level or complex behaviors are produced by the interaction of these individuals who are performing simple acts. As you might imagine, this is describing a system: It has parts, relationships and a collective outcome.

Indeed, this phenomenon cannot be defined below the system level -- meaning it can't be predicted by reducing it to its constituent parts, just as you cannot define your mind by a cataloging of neurons.

In the animal world the eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps and termites) are the masters of this behavior. When ants forage, they lay down pheromone trails as they bring back food. Each searching individual then follows the strongest (most traveled) trail, and found food is efficiently carted back to the nest. Termites exhibit this behavior when they build their impressive mounds, bees when they build their beautiful hives.

Next page: How stock trading is like a traffic jam

 Photo of peak hour traffic provided by Steve Lovegrove via Shutterstock.