Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Auto Antics: Anti-inchworm warrior

Today I call out from my perch to renounce the inchworm. 

Furthermore, though I do not presently possess any bumper stickers, “Anti-inchworm warrior” would be a serious candidate.

With great certainty very many among my fellowreadership will object with outrage, but they, too, may yet be charmed.  It is not that I have anything bad to say for the milky race of curly scrunch-munchers at all.  I do believe strongly, however, that they do not belong on freeways. 

[Example picture to come soon!]

Often when heavy traffic clogs a freeway, the many anxious and insecure drivers beating a clear path in neurotic, myopic stops and starts collectively behave like a coherent longitudinal wave, which is most easily perceived from the side and at some distance/with some perspective.   The readiest natural analog is the humble inchworm. 

*An anti-inchworm warrior is one who seeks to stabilize/buffer the speed of the horde of cars ("hairless and blind cavalry") behind them by driving at the average speed of the horde of cars in front of them in inchworm conditions only.  (One who drives at, say, 20 MPH at all times goes by other names.)

Imagine a six-lane interstate with heavy rush-hour traffic in the northbound lane.  In this scenario, only three lanes are available to accommodate the period of superexcessively heavy flow, so there is clearly no going around the traffic jam.  Nevertheless, most drivers feel a pressing and desperate need to close the gap between their vehicle and the one in front of them.  They are unaware that the mass of drivers they are a part of can only move as one unit.  They jump ahead at 40 miles per hour only to stop completely a few seconds later.  Let us assume for the sake of simplicity that the time spent at 40 MPH and the time spent at 0 MPH are roughly equal.  That makes the average speed of the drivers 20 MPH. 

This phenomenon, without a doubt, arises due to another inborn error of physics education, as we saw in the previous post.  Of course, it is also a variation on a common theme of the denial of interconnectedness or the (usually unexamined) assumption of personal physical separation, but that is another topic for another day.  Drivers have been demonstrably deceived by their mentors, instructors, professors, and the like into thinking that the easiest/safest way to achieve some average speed is to alternate equal periods of stopping and periods of driving at twice the speed they want to average. 
But this is not actually true.  The truth is that it is actually much easier to drive 20 MPH if that’s what your average speed is destined to be anyway because of the traffic jam.  I know this is a challenge, but try to stay with me here.

“But, Calm Canary!” you grumble, “the lanes move independently of each other!  You might get there faster if you find the fastest one and dart to and fro in front of other drivers and be more aggressive than everyone else!” 

To this I might say, “What was that all about?”

Of course, this conversation would be rendered completely unnecessary if the general public had a bit more interest in “carrying capacity” and “birth control.” 

I know how to settle this - with a pop quiz:

Q:  How might a driver best maximize their fuel efficiency? 
A:  By driving at a constant velocity, my fellows.  Thank you.

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