Jim Mcknight  /  AP
A GPS receiver, black case right, and a wireless PDA, allow drivers to link with 200 other vehicles in the area and avoid traffic jams.
updated 4/25/2005 1:11:18 PM ET 2005-04-25T17:11:18

Picking up doughnuts on the way to work recently, George List slid back into the driver's seat and heard a voice from the cup holder suggest an alternate route.  The car wasn't talking, exactly.  The voice came from a handheld computer nestled in the holder that links his car to 200 other vehicles in the area.  Data from all the vehicles — where they are, how quickly they move — is being used to create snapshots of area traffic patterns.

The system had detected a bottleneck ahead and quickly calculated a faster route.  "I said, `Oh, that's interesting, it changed its mind when I was doing something else,'" he said.

List obeyed the machine.  He later saw the traffic jam — at a distance, from another road.

List, director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Infrastructure and Transportation Studies, co-heads a federally funded project examining a potential high-tech solution to highway congestion.  Traffic is tracked through Global Positioning System devices in cars that are connected wirelessly.  Drivers participating in the pilot project essentially act as highway probes, receiving continual feedback from in-car computers intoning commands like "Just ahead, turn right."

"They're benefiting from each other being eyes and ears in the network," List said.

The project is one of many "smart highway" initiatives, which rely on information from technology such as traffic sensors and roadside cameras. This experimental system, with its automatic updates, would be a bit smarter.

By most any measure, America's gridlock is getting worse.  Once the scourge of big cities alone, traffic congestion is now common in smaller cities and suburbs.  Studies have found more bottlenecks nationwide and more time wasted in traffic as commuters drive more miles.

Building new lanes can help.  But for decades, state and federal transportation authorities also have pursued the cheaper option of making traffic flow more efficient.

The idea is to provide drivers with up-to-date traffic information through dedicated AM radio stations, electronic traffic signs, 511 numbers or, more recently, Web sites and cell phones.  Traffic information is often gleaned from sensors in the pavement or from pole-mounted cameras.

This project, funded by a $1.3 million grant from state and federal highway officials and headed by Rensselaer, focuses on information collected from commuters on weekday mornings.  In February, 200 volunteers who commute daily were loaned a GPS unit and a handheld computer linked to a central server.

Drivetime information is sent each minute from each vehicle to a server, where it forms a picture of traffic flow around a 40 mile radius.  Speed is computed by tracking progress between virtual checkpoints.  The handheld computers send updates.

Each handheld displays a map but there's no need to look at it thanks to a synthesized voice that sounds like a cross between a robot and the AOL "You've got mail" guy.  "The driver does not have to look at that dinky little screen while they're driving," said Alixandra Demers, a graduate student working on the project.

The experiment runs through May 15. Depending on results, the school may conduct a second, larger test.

Al Wallace, director of research for the center, said the system could be particularly attractive for mid- and small-sized cities plagued by rush-hour bottlenecks.  Setting it up would be cheaper than investing in a series of pole-mounted cameras or road sensors.

The idea behind the system will be familiar to anyone who ever used OnStar or other directional devices that rely on GPS units. The added element is that it could sense if, say, a truck was overturned across the designated route based on information from cars ahead moving slowly.

RPI via AP
The software that is used to track 200 vehicles on their morning commute.
GPS is one of several technologies being studied by transportation officials and private companies looking to update traffic systems, said Neil Schuster, president of the not-for-profit Intelligent Transportation Society of America.  AirSage, an Atlanta-based company, has developed a system that uses cell phones as anonymous "traffic probes."  Its first customer will be the Virginia Department of Transportation, which will use it in Norfolk this summer, said company president and chief executive officer Cy Smith.

Schuster said the auto industry is looking closely at federally dedicated spectrum space that could host a wireless network for moving cars.

Drivers in larger cities like San Francisco and Houston can already check the Web for color-coded traffic congestion maps.

Acura's 2005 RL features a navigation system that provides real-time traffic updates for 20 major cities; information is transmitted to the cars via XM radio satellites. Traffic data is aggregated from local police, transportation departments and other sources.

"The next big chapter in road development in the U.S. is, `How do you take all of these roads and connect them electronically?" Schuster said.

While the Electronic Highway is barely plugged in, aspects of it have already stirred controversy.  Privacy advocates worry about the misuse of information collected from road cameras, electronic toll tags and "black box" computer chips, which store information on speed and seat belt use.

On-board GPS units have already been used by police to track stolen cars, by businesses to pinpoint fleet trucks and, more ominously, by stalkers.

List notes, though, that users who don't want to be tracked can simply switch the GPS unit off.

The big question: How much are people willing to spend to avoid sitting in traffic?

List figures 10 to 15 percent of drivers in a given area would need to participate to make the system effective. The devices bought separately cost about $1,000.

A mass-produced device would presumably cost less, particularly if the technology is included in on-board GPS devices or pocket PCs.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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