How technology will ease our traffic woes

Behind the wheel of a car, even the most good-natured people can become impatient, aggressive and reckless.

Behind the wheel of a car, even the most good-natured people can become impatient, aggressive and reckless. That probably comes as little surprise: worsening traffic is making travelling by car an increasingly frustrating and unpleasant experience.

Take heart, there is a range of solutions on the horizon. A new generation of monitoring and data-gathering technologies could radically change the way we plan and drive our journeys. They should deliver more accurate information on traffic densities to help us avoid jams, as well as real-time advice on journey times and fuel consumption based on the way we accelerate and brake.

In-car monitors could even help especially safe drivers benefit from reduced insurance premiums, by demonstrating to insurance companies that they are at lower risk of accidents.

Most traffic monitoring today is done using wire induction loops which are buried under main roads to detect when vehicles pass. Installing these can be disruptive, so traffic authorities are hoping to build more sophisticated devices into existing road infrastructure without having to dig up the road.

One option being explored by a team at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory is to attach wireless infrared sensors to lamp posts. "The thing about lamp posts is that they are everywhere," says David Evans, who leads the project. They also have available power, making them "ideal for building a dense network of sensors throughout cities such as Cambridge" (see diagram).

Another idea, being tested by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, is to gather information about vehicle speeds and traffic levels from drivers' GPS-enabled cellphones. The Mobile Millennium project, being run in partnership with phone company Nokia and digital map provider NAVTEQ, blends encrypted location data with traffic information from other sources before broadcasting the resulting travel information back to users' phones. Similar systems are already in commercial use in Europe.

Such schemes reflect the growing enthusiasm for gathering ever more detailed data about traffic patterns and driving habits. "It's no longer about identifying accidents or roadworks, it's now about measuring average road speeds and trying to predict future road speeds," says Dominique Bonte of ABI Research, which studies the impact of emerging technologies on consumers.

Microsoft Research has developed a system called JamBayes that continuously analyses current and historical traffic trends to make inferences about the future conditions of roads. It not only predicts future journey times and plots congestion-free routes, but can also warn drivers to leave earlier in order to avoid impending gridlock.

It not only plots congestion-free routes- it also warns drivers to leave earlier to avoid impending gridlock

One traffic prediction company in the UK is taking this a step further with a system called MyDrive. "MyDrive actually learns how you drive, and then applies this to work out more accurate journey times," says John Holland, head of Journey Dynamics, the Surrey-based company that developed it. It measures dozens of individual driving traits, such as the way someone accelerates or the speeds at which they drive in different road conditions. As well as allowing users to predict arrival times more accurately, MyDrive could be used to help reduce a driver's insurance premiums, says Holland. For example, if you are a safe or cautious driver, the software could confirm this to your insurance company.

This kind of personal data feedback could be used in another way: to encourage more environmentally friendly driving. By demonstrating how much fuel someone is wasting through over-acceleration, for example, the hope is that drivers will think twice about how they drive, says Alan Stevens, of Transport Research Laboratories in Crowthorne, UK. "Fuel cost is quite a good motivator."

TRL has developed a type of cruise-control software called Sentience that optimises the acceleration and deceleration of a vehicle to reduce the fuel it burns. Using a combination of GPS and advanced mapping to take account of hills, bends, lights and traffic, it has succeeded in reducing petrol consumption by nearly one-quarter in a hybrid vehicle. The same principle should apply to conventional cars, says Stevens.

This multifaceted revolution in traffic data collection, with its focus on individual driving habits, will come at a price in terms of personal privacy, however. Some motorists will be uneasy at giving companies access to information about their whereabouts and behaviour. "It's a delicate balance," says Bonte. People will want assurances that such data will not be abused.

So how much intrusion into their habits and behaviours will drivers tolerate? Most researchers think people will be prepared to forgo some privacy if there are clear benefits - up to a point. A system developed by IBM which has been trialled in the United Arab Emirates uses GPS data to issue speeding tickets to drivers automatically if they fail to slow down after three warnings. This may be a step too far for many, though a trial is currently under way in London that uses the same kind of technology to limit the speeds of buses.

One thing's for sure, says Stevens, a range of these kinds of systems is "going to become a necessity in order to achieve a decent journey time".

This article originally appeared on New Scientist.

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