Weird tech: Cell phones to cure road rage?

Anonymous signaling data from drivers' cell phones lend AirSage insights into traffic congestion

Ever wonder why traffic reports are so wrong so often and what can be done about it? The answer may be in your cell phone.

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Most traffic data today -- other than the helicopter fly-over variety -- is collected by roadside sensors that cost more than $50,000 per mile to install and maintain, according to Tom Bouwer, vice president of sales and marketing at AirSage. Bouwer's company has developed a cheaper solution, which he claims will soon make accurate traffic data widely available for a host of very cool applications.

"What you hear on the radio today is incident data," Bouwer explains. "It doesn't tell you severity or impact on travel times." Moreover, only 10,000 miles of driving routes in the United States are currently covered by sensors, he said, out of the hundreds of thousands of miles of primary and secondary roads in major population areas.

AirSage plans to use "anonymous signaling data" from drivers' cell phones, working in partnership with major mobile phone carriers (the company already has a contract with Sprint Nextel). The heart of the solution is a "black box" that will go beyond simple cell-tower triangulation, running a series of algorithms on the wireless signals to determine cars' speed and location. But the system doesn't use the built-in GPS tracking capabilities now required by law for cell phones because that would eat up too much of the carriers' network bandwidth.

Bouwer says the traffic data will then be delivered to all kinds of users, including government planners, travel information programs such as 511, handheld and on-dash navigation systems, mobile phone applications, and the media.

"This is actually a very disruptive technology," says Bouwer, who claims that when fully deployed it will enable innovative applications, including real-time routing to reduce congestion and commute times.

Other potential benefits could include more coordinated evacuations in case of regional emergencies, Bouwer explains. "In Katrina, they didn't have a regionwide view of traffic conditions, which would have enabled a much more efficient evacuation of people and better identification of pockets of noncompliance," he says.

Of course, all of this data is anonymous, Bouwer insists. And although no system is 100 percent accurate, he thinks the system will be good enough to make a notable difference in peoples' lives. "People look at accuracy as mile-per-hour differences across speed bands," he explains. "For a 20-minute morning drive, you don't care if it's 10 percent slower at 22 minutes, but you do if it's 25 or 26 or 27."

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