Future Tech by David H. Freedman
Tomorrow’s cars may finally realize the driver’s great
dream: a cure for the common traffic jam.
For millions of drivers, those in-car navigation systems inspire something close to full-on techno love. Unless,
of course, you’re one of those people who
have followed the devices into rivers, onto
train tracks, down impassable wilderness
trails, or right into another country. Even if
you’re not, you should be annoyed that your
fancy navigation system cannot solve one
of the great scourges of modern life: traf;c delays. A 2007 study showed that in the
United States alone, drivers spent 4 billion
human-hours crawling or sitting on the road
that year; those delays cost nearly $90 billion in fuel and lost productivity. Feel free to
put your own dollar value on the aggravation. I estimate it in the trillions, just for me.
There is a good reason why you still
spend all that time parked on the highway.
Figuring out the shortest route between
two points is easy to handle for a computer
(or a sharp 7-year-old with a good map, for
that matter). Figuring out the fastest route—
the one that will minimize traf;c —is a monster challenge. Sure, you can get traffic
updates radioed to your nav system or sent
to your cell phone, courtesy of traf;c-data
providers like Navteq, based in Chicago,
and Clear Channel Radio of San Antonio.
But by the time you find out that you’re
headed into a jam, you’re probably already
stuck. And when you call up an alternate
route, it may be equally clogged. “Traf;c is
a very complicated, dynamic system that
isn’t easy to optimize,” says Jeff Ban, an
engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who builds computer models of traf;c.
What’s missing is predictive traf;c routing:
a system for ;nding a path that takes into
account not just what is happening now but
how the situation is likely to develop over
your entire trip, over all possible routes.
Creating such a system requires assimilating vast troves of historical and real-time
data on traf;c on all relevant roads—about
4 million miles’ worth. Only a minuscule fraction of highways are currently monitored.
“Your nav can be off by multiple factors, telling you it will be a 20-minute trip when it’s
really going to take well over an hour,” says
Quinn Jacobson, an engineer at Nokia’s
research center in Palo Alto, California.
But the needed data are ;nally ;owing in,
a happy side effect of the fact that nearly all
of us now drive around carrying cell phones.
In the past year, traf;c-monitoring services
have begun tracking the movements of
mobile phones on roadways. Some 4 million phones now report their speed and
position to Nokia-owned Navteq alone;
millions more report to other traf;c-data
services, including Inrix of Kirkland, Washington, Tom Tom’s High Definition Traffic
of Concord, Massachusetts, and Google
Maps. Since most of today’s cell phones
can pick up GPS signals, the data they
generate are highly accurate, typically to
tens of feet and a few miles per hour. Those
numbers are sent off in much the same way
that text messages are, except it happens
automatically, without your involvement.
Who would agree to be tracked this
way? Well, you yourself probably did if you
activated a location-based service on your
phone. Your location data are tagged by
your phone only with a random identi;er,
not with any personal information—so the
services know where you are, but in theory
they don’t know who you are.
Armed with that swelling ocean of infor-
mation, nav systems are getting better at
guessing at traf;c-beating routes, some-
times also taking into account sporting
events, weather predictions, parades,
construction, and school vacations. “We
are already tracking a dozen variables per
city,” says Bryan Mistele, CEO of Inrix,
which offers an iPhone navigation app
that delivers predictive traf;c-avoidance
BRIAN S TAUFFER