September 9, 2008 By Chad Vander Veen
Automobiles and the highways we drive them on are wonders of technology -- old technology. Like the suburbs that sprang up after the interstate was born, little thought was given to how these marvels of road building would hold up in the future. Today's traffic is a worsening problem with no clear solution.
Like climate change, the best strategy to soothe traffic woes is likely a combination of solutions. Except for a few pockets of hope, U.S. public transportation ranges from laughable to nonexistent. As much sense as a high-speed rail service would make in populous, spread-out places like California and Texas, the cost and political will it would require doesn't make it an option. What remains is constructing more roads and an amalgam of technologies known as intelligent transportation systems (ITS).
Unfortunately ITS doesn't herald a new age of '60s-era transportation futurism. There will be no flying cars or downtown monorails. What ITS can do, however, is make traffic more bearable. While anyone with a modicum of foresight knows that gasoline-powered cars plodding along occasionally widening, often-crumbling freeways isn't a sustainable solution, ITS may help bide time to truly solve the transportation problem.
Rubber, Meet Road
Many drivers already use ITS in some fashion whether they know it or not. John Q. Public may be oblivious to ITS because the term covers so many different technology pieces.
California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Chief Deputy Director Randy Iwasaki did his best to sum up what exactly ITS encompasses.
"Examples of ITS are 511, Web sites where motorists view real-time traffic speeds, FasTrak, smart parking, bus rapid transit, Wi-Fi access at rest areas, ramp meters, closed circuit television, changeable message signs and the vehicle infrastructure integration program," he said.
On their own merits, 511, changeable message signs and ramp meters, aren't too exciting. But taken together, an ad hoc web develops that reaches into almost every part of the transportation experience. And California, like many other states, is working on cutting-edge stuff, such as the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) program.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials and a number of automobile manufacturers are driving the national VII program. The goal is to create a nationwide network of communication-enabled infrastructure. In other words, VII is an attempt to connect vehicles on the road to the things surrounding them -- intersections, onramps and even other vehicles. If the infrastructure communicates to the vehicles and vice versa, drivers should be able to travel more efficiently and safely.
The auto manufacturers onboard with VII are working on data-transmitting technologies that would interface with similar devices embedded in the infrastructure. One project to accomplish this feat is a test in Berkeley, Calif., that uses GPS-enabled mobile phones to transmit a vehicle's position and speed data to generate real-time traffic information without costly technology installation. The project is operated jointly by Caltrans; the California Center for Innovative Transportation; the University of California (UC), Berkeley; Nissan; NAVTEQ; and Nokia. In February, the consortium conducted an experiment to test the validity of using GPS phones as traffic sensors.
The experiment, called the Mobile Century, involved 100 UC Berkeley student volunteers. Each student was given a Nokia phone and proceeded to drive up and down a prescribed section of Interstate 880. The students drove for 10 hours while the phones relayed speed and location data to a command center. The experiment's goal was to see whether the phone data could accurately predict traffic and help drivers avoid and prevent congestion. Transportation officials and UC engineers were thoroughly pleased with the experiment. The results suggested the system has potential.
"Even though the phones are capable of sending their position and speed every three seconds, an efficient traffic-monitoring system should not need