When I was young, like most kids, I had toy cars. I built roads for them in the dirt and drove them about. How I played with those cars was a reflection on how I saw the world – with a bit of fun mixed in. A few months ago, I observed my young kids playing with their cars. They were playing very differently to how I ever did. They were making roads and then lining the cars up end on end.

In curiosity, I continued to watch as they crept the cars forward one at a time. I could not understand what game they were playing, so I asked. They responded that they were playing “traffic”. At the time I was extremely amused, but since then I have had time to realise, with some sadness, that this reflects how different their world is.

Congestion Has Many Negative Effects On Our Personal Lives As Well As Society.

Many strategies are being explored to solve our transport issues. One reason that automated vehicles are so hyped is their potential to remove the ‘human factor’ that complicates driving behaviour.

For instance, when it comes to congestion, the habit of drivers trying to rush their personal commute leads to many familiar problems. People try to squeeze themselves to the front of the queue, switch lanes where one appears to be moving faster than another and so forth. This forces other drivers to brake, and the pause caused by human reaction speed leads to a system behaviour that closely resembles a compression wave.

Like real waves, in technical terms, those compressions are subject to constructive reinforcement or destructive interference, increasing or decreasing the amplitude respectively.

Practically speaking, we experience that compression wave as the stop-and-go that we associate with congestion. Automated vehicles can be programmed to take advantage of this, to ensure a more freely-flowing system even in a mixture of human and AI drivers.

Of course, automated vehicles are not necessary to accomplish this. Human drivers alone could accomplish the same thing, if they would drive with a system approach instead of an egocentric one – albeit with slightly less efficiency due to the slower reaction time.

The Question Is, How Do We Change People’s Driving Behaviour?

Some changes we can make would have general benefits, such as increasing following distance. (The gaps act as a buffer to the compression waves, decreasing their strength.) However, the best benefits can be gained by modifying behaviour dynamically.

Gamification is one way this could be accomplished. This is where game design principles are used to modify people’s behaviour (or more accurately, get them to modify their own behaviour). The participants, or players, win rewards if they adjust their behaviour.

Gamification is being explored as a way to encourage many desirable aspects of transport, including safer driving, more efficient driving, and the use of public transport.

Singapore implemented a scheme in 2012 called INSINC, using gamification to encourage commuters to use public transport off-peak. Rewards included random prizes (similar to a raffle), social influence, and even personalised offers. An initial six-month trial resulted in a 7.5% shift to off-peak hours, making peak hours much easier for those who needed to travel at that time.

Gamification Can Also Be Used To Encourage Safer Driving.

Australia, for instance, has tried with limited success to tighten safety laws. Samsung tested an alternative called S-Drive between 2014 and 2015 – an app that activates when plugged into a vehicle. It enabled hands-free functionality on mobile devices (and limited hands-on functionality), while providing warnings when it detects unsafe driving like speeding, and unsafe conditions such as accidents, traffic, or adverse weather. The app awarded points for each kilometre travelled safely, and these could be spent on music, movies, video games, and even tickets to concerts and events. Users could also form teams and share points for larger purchases – utilising peer pressure to encourage safe driving, rather than the opposite which is usually the case.

The reported results from the test were amazing:

  • 4,500 active participants (mostly in the target age of 17-25)
  • 25,000 rewards claimed
  • 3 million kms travelled
  • 25% fewer crashes
  • 20% fewer fatalities.

Reportedly, the trial brought the death toll down to the lowest it has been since 1936.

Of course, these are only reported results, and I have not thoroughly investigated the process used to gather these statistics. But if even a fraction of those results can be achieved…

A program like this could be developed for New Zealand, specifically targeting our conditions. The challenge of getting people to participate would be easy to overcome if we offered the right incentives. I know I would happily participate for discounts or credits towards vehicle registration, ACC, petrol, or even credits on my HOP card (further encouraging me to use public transport when convenient).

Another exciting aspect is that what we normally consider “safe driving” also tends to be more efficient. It might be possible to quantify the “green quotient” of such gamification, helping New Zealand meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement while reducing noxious pollutants – all by helping us to drive better.