Presence of just a few autonomous vehicles could eliminate the ‘stop-start’ driving of human drivers in traffic, along with the accident risk and fuel inefficiency it causes, new research indicates.

A team of US researchers came to the conclusion following a series of autonomous vehicle experiments. “Our experiments show that with as few as 5% of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate ‘stop-and-go’ waves caused by human driving behaviour,” said assistant professor at the University of Illinois Daniel B Work.

The researchers believe their findings indicate that self driving cars and related technology may be even closer to revolutionising traffic control than previously thought.

The team conducted field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, in which a single autonomous vehicle circled a track continuously with at least 20 other human driven cars.

The researchers found that by controlling the pace of the autonomous car in the study, they were able to smooth out the traffic flow for all the cars, eliminating ‘phantom traffic jams’ caused by stop-start traffic. In fact the study also suggested that technology available now, such as adaptive cruise control, could be used to a similar effect.

Researcher Benedetto Piccoli said: “Fully autonomous vehicles in common traffic may be still far away in the future due to many technological, market and policy constraints. However, increased communication among vehicles and increased levels of autonomy in human driven vehicles is in the near future.”

Researcher Benjamin Seibold added: “The proper design of autonomous vehicles requires a profound understanding of the reaction of humans to them and traffic experiments play a crucial role in understanding this interplay of human and robotic agents.”

The researchers say the next step will be to study the impact of autonomous vehicles in denser traffic, with more freedom granted to the human drivers such as the ability to change lanes.

This article first appeared on ITS UK Review.