Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Tracking cell phones for traffic reports

If you can get past the privacy concerns, this is extremely cool technology.
These new traffic systems can monitor several hundred thousand cellphones at once. The phones need only be turned on, not in use. And sophisticated software now makes it possible to discern whether a signal is coming from, say, a moving car or a pedestrian.

State officials say the systems will monitor large clusters of phones, not individual phones, and the benefits could be substantial. By providing a constantly updated picture of traffic flow across thousands of miles of highways, they argue, cellphone tracking can help transportation agencies spot congestion and divert drivers by issuing alerts by radio or on electronic road signs.
"The potential is incredible," said Phil Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland. He said the monitoring technology could possibly help reduce congestion in some areas by 50 percent.
They're not kidding. Imagine real-time synchronization of traffic lights, identifying and adjusting for bottlenecks on the fly. Imagine immediate calculation of the optimal route between any two points based on current - and projected - traffic conditions.

If the lights get timed better and people can quickly see alternate surface street routes that have similar travel times, we can take a load off the freeways. I think a lot of people in Houston just head to the freeway by default. Even if it's not necessarily that much faster in the case of shorter trips, people perceive that it's faster since they're not stopping and starting all the time - even if the surface street route is more direct. If a real-time system told them an equivalent surface street route with shorter distance but a similar total time, I think they'd take it.

How about this? Register a few of your most common destinations on a web site, then, when you get in the car, you call a number, tell an automated system where you're going (picking one of those pre-registered destinations), it calculates where you are and the optimal route based on current measured speeds (freeways, arterials, everything), then you put it on speakerphone and throw it in the passenger seat to give you verbal directions as you drive. Cell phone companies should be all over this just for the extra minutes you'll burn (and the minute plan upgrade you'll have to buy).

Even if this system costs tens of millions of dollars to install, it's a whole lot cheaper than adding any new capacity. The bang for the buck would be incredible.

Finally, how much do you think this would have helped during the Hurricane Rita evacuation?

Houston has long been an innovator in transportation with frontage roads, EZ-Tag-only toll roads, real-time freeway information, and HOV and HOT lanes. Let's hope we're one of the early innovators with this technology too.


At 11:22 AM, November 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice report Tory! I like seeing the transportation conversation expanded beyond light rail or no light rail!! Our bag of future solutions is much broader!

Now this cell phone based approach to mobility is evolutionary and it's just the beginning. What I like is that it adds information to the driver's experience and shows them the entire system. Rather than just driving on inutition and getting frustrated emotionally.

What's next? ... this monitoring system leads to it a transportation system where cars talk to other cars. What this does is add a new layer of information to the transportation network.
Imagine - a very simply application on the market in three years. Through cell phones (or low cost mobile device/LED on your dash board) calculates the ideal speed (not the driver's preferred speed) of moving along a highway without having to slow down or stop. This speed will of course fluctuate based on the real time data coming in. The result is drivers have more information about traffic- and see immediate benefits by following ideal speeds. i.e. No more stop and go along the freeways. Cars talking to other cars is a new era for mobility! Futurists often talk of Smart Cars... but what about Smart Drivers?!! Imagine an interface in your car that shows you the entire system (aerial view; flow rates, et al) rather than just looking out your windshield only at the car in front of you. Other approaches include non-visual warning systems- so a vibrating steering wheel to alert drivers to upcoming changes in flow... Point being- we need to move driving (inputs) beyond simple sight!

Good find Tory! And a nice 'new' approach to mobility for Houstonians to discuss... A driver oriented; mobile device based solution...!!

At 11:35 AM, November 16, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like the celebrity back seat driver is on the way too!!! The next ring tone type market?!!


Mr. T's voice drives shotgun...

At 12:02 PM, November 18, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was reading in the newest issue of Wired about how drivers in Switzerland and England have set it up so that they can share info with each other via texting about speed traps in their area. Drivers who provide info about speed traps receive credits, and drivers who receive info about speed traps pay 65 cents per message. I thought it was kind of neat, although not entirely related to this discussion.

At 12:15 PM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston has enough ez-tags to have the same effect as this cellphone technology. The readers could be placed along the arterials to get up to the minute operating levels. Cellphone users, Northstar, Navigation Systems, etc. could get the info. in the cars to direct them to the best route based on the route they had originally submitted. Cellphones would be the easiest way to get this system deployed but it should include the existing infrastructure to enhance the performance and to speed deployment. The original Intelligent Transportation System propose by the federal goverment lays alot of this out. The original system proposed using the traffic controllers at each intersection to communicate to local vehicles via modules built into the AM radios telling the drivers to reroute if congestion or accidents are ahead. This system does not consider the predetermined route. The thought at the time was that people would not take the time to enter the route or want people to know what their route is. Just as a start if someone would just start a database and solicit drivers to submit their standard routes and times, I feel that the data could be used to determine future capacity needs. Right now our system of collecting volumes and measuring the operation in terms of queing is something we were doing in the 60's. If we did this in the oil industry the gas would never get to the cars.


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