Can technology alleviate road rage?
The humble traffic bulletin, long a staple of local television and radio stations, is becoming a hot commodity in the fast-growing world of mobile technology, as tech companies look for ways to get real-time reports to commuters while they're driving.
Web giants such as Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN are offering e-mail alerts or interactive maps that detail traffic snarls. Satellite radio providers XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. and Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. have launched traffic update services in select markets. OnStar, the road-assistance program in cars from General Motors Corp. and others, also offers weather and traffic bulletins.
Yesterday, handheld computer maker Palm Inc. became the latest to attack the gridlock problem, with the introduction of a subscription service called "Traffic for Treo Smartphones," designed to help users of its cell phone and mobile Internet gadget avoid congestion.
Palm is rolling out the service in 10 notoriously traffic-heavy areas, including Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. For $4.99 a month, the program will wirelessly beam commuters interactive maps with blinking traffic alerts containing the latest information about local traffic speed, accidents, construction and stalled cars on the roads. The service costs more if a user wants to subscribe to alerts for more than one city.
Andrew Breen, director of data solutions at Palm, said that Treo users had been clamoring for such a tool. "We did a survey among thousands of users about what [applications] and services they wanted -- traffic came out at the top of the list," he said.
Palm's service combines information from local government transportation departments with observations at local traffic choke points such as bridges and toll plazas, using both automated systems and people keeping watch over traffic cameras. Breen said administering the service around Washington is a little trickier than in most areas because it involves coordinating information from sources in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
For consumer electronics makers, a gadget that helps drivers solve their commute headaches could prove to be a big selling point. A recent study found that the Washington area has the third-worst congestion in the nation and that residents spend an average of 69 hours a year in traffic jams -- at a cost of $577 per commuter.
Derek Meyer, a Treo fan who lives in Alexandria, said he was excited about the new program. "I think for this area it will be huge," he said, adding that he downloaded a free trial version of the program yesterday and rated it "very easy to use" after a first look at the interface.
Michael Nappi, senior vice president of business development at Traffic.com, a site that offers free and for-pay traffic update options, said that traffic updates have been especially popular with Web portal sites such as Yahoo in recent years because that's the type of information that changes regularly and brings Web surfers back on a regular basis. The Washington Post's Web site also offers traffic updates.
Traffic.com supplies the congestion reports used in XM Radio's traffic update technology, available in high-end XM radio units that come in some Acura and Cadillac models. For subscribers who don't have the high-end unit, XM also has 20 regional stations such as XM 214, which delivers Washington area traffic and news 24 hours a day.
Stephen Baker, analyst at NPD Group, said that local radio stations have often complained about such new technologies, because they encroach on a service that was once their exclusive domain.
But Joel Oxley, general manager of local news station WTOP, said yesterday that the introduction of services such as Palm's do not trouble him. "I feel that we have an advantage because it's so much easier to click on the radio," he said. WTOP has done some work in the area of digital traffic news delivery; at its Web site, the station touts a service called AirVideo that sends traffic cam photos to a subscriber's cell phone.
For all the access to live information that such technological wizardry makes possible, not everyone believes that more data will be of much help to drivers who are stuck on the road, no matter where they get it.
"Information can be useful if you can do something with it," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "If your commute goes across the American Legion Bridge, there aren't that many other options -- you can go through downtown Washington or you can swim. We don't recommend swimming."