A Brief Look At Car-Following Models

Recently I posted a short introduction to recurrence relations – what they are and how they can be used for mathematical modeling. This post expands on the topic as car-following models are a nice example of recurrence relations applied to the real-world.

Suppose a car is traveling on the road at the speed u(t) at time t. Another car approaches this car from behind and starts following it. Obviously the driver of the car that is following cannot choose his speed freely. Rather, his speed v(t) at time t will be a result of whatever the driver in the leading car is doing.

The most basic car-following model assumes that the acceleration a(t) at time t of the follower is determined by the difference in speeds. If the leader is faster than the follower, the follower accelerates. If the leader is slower than the follower, the follower decelerates. The follower assumes a constant speed if there’s no speed difference. In mathematical form, this statement looks like this:

a(t) = λ * (u(t) – v(t))

The factor λ (sensitivity) determines how strongly the follower accelerates in response to a speed difference. To be more specific: it is the acceleration that results from a speed difference of one unit.


Before we go on: how is this a recurrence relation? In a recurrence relation we determine a quantity from its values at an earlier time. This seems to be missing here. But remember that the acceleration is given by:

a(t) = (v(t+h) – v(t)) / h

with h being a time span. Inserted into the above car-following equation, we can see that it indeed implies a recurrence relation.


Our model is still very crude. Here’s the biggest problem: The response of the driver is instantaneous. He picks up the speed difference at time t and turns this information into an acceleration also at time t. But more realistically, there will be a time lag. His response at time t will be a result of the speed difference at an earlier time t – Λ, with Λ being the reaction time.

a(t) = λ * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ))

The reaction time is usually in the order of one second and consist of the time needed to process the information as well as the time it takes to move the muscles and press the pedal. There are several things we can do to make the model even more realistic. First of all, studies show that the speed difference is not the only factor. The distance d(t) between the leader and follower also plays an important role. The smaller it is, the stronger the follower will react. We can take this into account by putting the distance in the denominator:

a(t) = (λ / d(t)) * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ))

You can also interpret this as making the sensitivity distance-dependent. There’s still one adjustment we need to make. The above model allows any value of acceleration, but we know that we can only reach certain maximum values in a car. Let’s symbolize the maximum acceleration by a(acc) and the maximum deceleration by a(dec). The latter will be a number smaller than zero since deceleration is by definition negative acceleration. We can write:

a(t) = a(acc) if (λ / d(t)) * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ)) > a(acc)
a(t) = a(dec) if (λ / d(t)) * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ)) < a(dec)
a(t) = (λ / d(t)) * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ)) else

It probably looks simpler using an if-statement:

a(t) = (λ / d(t)) * (u(t – Λ) – v(t – Λ))

IF a(t) > a(acc) THEN
a(t) = a(acc)
ELSEIF a(t) < a(dec) THEN
a(t) = a(dec)

This model already catches a lot of nuances of car traffic. I hope I was able to give you some  insight into what car-following models are and how you can fine-tune them to satisfy certain conditions.


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