1203. Could the traffic flow on freeways be modeled as a one-dimensional gas? You can see waves of motion among the cars and these waves travel faster as the cars pack more tightly. — RH, Escondido, California
There are many similarities between the cars traveling on a freeway and the molecules in a gas. As you point out, disturbances at one point in the traffic cause ripples of motion to spread backward through the cars—similar to what happens in a gas. However, normal gas molecules only interact with one another when they actually touch, while cars interact at much larger distances—unlike gas molecules, cars don't do so well when they collide with one another. To avoid collisions, the drivers watch what's happening far ahead of them and react accordingly. In that sense, traffic's behavior resembles that of a non-neutral plasma—a gas of charged particles that all have the same electric charge and therefore repel one another even at large distances. If you were to send such a plasma through a narrow pipe, its particles would jostle back and forth as they tried to stay as far as possible from one another. Ripples of motion would pass through the plasma and this motion would be very similar to that of cars on a freeway.