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Beating Traffic By Joining the Network

Take a look at how Dash Navigation believes it will set itself apart from other GPS devices. Video by Peter Whoriskey/The Washington Post

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 25, 2008


For a solitary driver, the ebb and flow of traffic can be maddeningly unpredictable.

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So some tech entrepreneurs wondered what would happen if all of those isolated drivers could be connected and warn one another what lies ahead.

The idea will get a closely watched tryout this week, when Dash Navigation begins selling two-way GPS devices for cars, creating, in essence, a network of drivers. A central computer will collect speed and location information from each car, then create and transmit back what the start-up company hopes will be the most complete and up-to-the-minute picture of traffic ever created.

Based on the once-futuristic notion of the "hive mind" -- essentially, the aggregation of what everyone in a group senses individually -- the effort reflects what many consider one of the most fertile areas for innovation: collecting and analyzing data from disparate but newly linked sources.

A driver who installs a $599 Dash unit would, in theory, be able to learn about the traffic ahead from someone in the network who had just experienced it. It's like Web efforts that rely on a group of users -- Wikipedia or Amazon's book recommendations, for example. But the Dash network will operate in real time and rely less on humans for input than on the devices. The more people who have the devices in a given area, the more accurate the information.

"We thought that if we could have all these cars connected, we could really change the experience," said Rob Currie, Dash's president and chief operating officer.

The units have been tested near Dash's home base in Sunnyvale, Calif., and in other cities around the country, including Washington, where travel delays from congestion are the second-worst in the United States, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. Starting Thursday, the company plans to begin selling the devices, which offer traffic information, directions and Internet search.

"Dash is right on the front end of the next wave of devices and applications that harvest ambient data and then build real-time services from it," said Tim O'Reilly, a publisher of computer books and organizer of the influential MySQL tech conference.

Dash's effort is considered the first mass-market attempt to use GPS-based tracking with such a potentially broad U.S. audience. GPS devices in cars have until now provided directions but not such potentially broad-based real-time traffic information.

Entrepreneurs, truck fleets and cellphone companies have been experimenting with similar ideas for years and have encountered thorny issues of privacy and accuracy along the way.

As criminals, cheats and others have discovered to their dismay in recent decades, a person who uses cellphone or GPS technology can be a lot easier to track. Use of the technology to monitor traffic has repeatedly raised questions about whether the tracking data might be used for other purposes.

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