That Little Voice Telling You To Skip I-95? It's Your Car

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's cold, it's dark, you're tired, and the last thing you want to face is one more backup on Interstate 66. Imagine if your cellphone or vehicle navigation system knew about one and directed you to Route 50 because it would shave 11 minutes off your ride.

As regional transportation planners seek to widen highways and build Metro lines to increase options for commuters, leaders in Virginia are trying to get that kind of please-say-it's-so technology into the hands of drivers to get more out of the roads they have.

"We need help," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary. To that end, the budget proposed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) includes $20 million for technology "challenge grants" to generate ideas about reducing congestion. Homer said the ideas could include ways to clear accidents more quickly or encourage telecommuting.

But the holy grail of the effort is providing an accurate, real-time picture of traffic conditions on all roads -- technology that could start appearing in this area by the end of the year.

Some companies are using information from cellphones and E-ZPass transponders to fine-tune technology that could give drivers information so precise they would know the best exit to take and where to find alternate roads with favorable traffic lights. When drivers are backed up on the Dulles Toll Road, they would know whether Route 7, for example, would be better.

Managers could use the same information to better time cars merging onto roads and to create a steady traffic flow, eliminating the typical bottlenecks.

Traffic data are limited to roadside cameras and sensors buried in the pavement. These are expensive to install and maintain and are generally limited to interstates and major highways. And the information they provide -- it is 6 p.m. and the Capital Beltway is jammed -- is hardly a revelation. Radio, television and Internet reports, which rely on much of the same information, are not much better.

To make the leap forward, companies are trying to tap into widely used technology, such as cellphones, Global Positioning System units and E-ZPass transponders. Cellphones constantly emit signals in search of transmission towers, and those signals could be used to track drivers as they travel -- or sit in traffic.

Instead of the thousands of road sensors on major highways, there could be millions of cellphone signals painting a detailed portrait of the region's comings and goings, on Interstate 270 or in a suburban cul-de-sac.

"The melding is happening now," said Bryan Mistele, president and chief executive of Inrix, a Microsoft spinoff based in Kirkland, Wash., that develops real-time traffic information. Inrix takes data from government road sensors, adds it to GPS readings from commercial vehicles and taxis and combines it with other information that might affect traffic, such as sports, concert and school schedules, construction projects and weather reports.

The goal is not just to show real conditions but also to predict what will be, say, the best route to Dulles International Airport at 7 p.m. on a Friday or around Redskins traffic on a Sunday afternoon, Mistele said.

Anyone buying a new BMW with a navigational system gets Inrix service, and Virginia uses the company's data in its 511 traffic information system.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company