A long route 90 near San Antonio, brake lights are starting to flash. Twenty-five kilometers away, Sam Mendoza is sipping coffee in the region’s “TransGuide” traffic management center,where 16 wall-mounted television monitors display scenes from some of the 109 video cameras peering at 100 kilometers of area highways. Suddenly, a beeping sound signals that traffic on Route 90 has slowed below 40 kilometers per hour, as sensed by some of the 1,700-odd magnetic-loop detectors embedded in the region’s roads.Mendoza seizes a computer mouse and zooms a highway-mounted camera toward the problem spot; soon his monitor reveals two bearded men in the breakdown lane struggling to fix a pickup truck’s flat tire.He quickly types a keyboard command, causing an arrow on an electronic sign hanging over the righthand
lane to flash from green to yellow. The light warns drivers about the flat-fixers, hopefully allowing them to avoid an accident or maybe find a different route.
At first blush, the system at Mendoza’s disposal sure looks like a smart way to fight traffic. That’s what the federal government thought a decade ago when it began funding “intelligent highways,” a snappy term for a laborious program of installing sensors, video cameras and programmable signs along the nation’s highways. Today, systems in place in San Antonio and 49 other urban areas are indeed providing speedier accident response. But the cost is mounting, with the total taxpayer tab topping $8.5 billion to date. And despite that investment, controllers can’t detect traffic beyond where the sensors are installed. Worse, they have limited ways of alerting drivers; typically it’s either via signs or by notifying the news media. And as any
driver knows, even a 10-minute delay until the news breaks on the radio often means it’s too late to avoid the snarl.
In short, it’s time to hit the brakes on Uncle Sam’s approach to traffic management. Instead of a massive and costly new physical infrastructure that takes a couple decades to roll out, it turns out the road to truly intelligent highways is leading to cars themselves-or more precisely, to the wireless gadgets inside them. Tens of millions of vehicles are now loaded with cell phones, electronic toll-paying tags, onboard computers, two-way pagers and Global Positioning System receivers; all promise to play a role in a new era of wireless traffic management. That’s because, as millions of drivers gab on their mobile phones, the radio signals from those devices can double as handy traffic and speed sensors. Meanwhile, devices ranging from the lowly pager to luxury navigation systems are beginning to provide ways for drivers to get real-time traffic information,
customized for their routes. Even better: for-profit wireless companies seem willing to pick up part of the tab.
Plenty of curves and obstacles lurk along this new wireless superhighway. The technology needs refinement, business models remain unproven and drivers will want assurances their privacy won’t be invaded by new highway listening posts. But the promise is hard to deny. Around the country, from the crowded Washington Beltway to the San Francisco Bay, incipient tests of wireless traffic sensing are already hinting that these
new technologies can augment-and even eclipse-the original federal program, and do it in a matter of years, not decades. “With wireless technology, we don’t have to wait for the government to install loop detectors,” asserts Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility, a Washington, DC-based transportation consulting firm. “Private enterprise can set up cellular networks faster and cheaper and extend intelligent highway capabilities to virtually every highway in the nation.”