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Trafficking In Traffic

But before these emerging traffic-management technologies can really make their mark, some critical questions remain to be answered. One of the most basic is who will pay. “The technology is available,” says Najarian of the Intelligent Transportation Society. “But what’s missing is a revenue flow tying all these elements together.”

U.S.Wireless, for one, hopes to sell its data to state agencies, allowing them to broadcast updates via the standard news reports and warning signs, plus any future avenues that evolve. It’s also a good bet that many drivers will pay at least a modest fee to save some of those 4.3 billion hours spent stuck in traffic. Cue, a pager company in Irving, CA, is already charging $10 to $15 a month for personalized traffic information in more than 60 U.S. markets. Cue collects its data from all available sources, including loop detectors, helicopter news reports and, eventually, cell-phone signals. After a customer programs a route into a two-way pager, the company sends personalized alerts. These can be read as text on the pager or heard through a voice synthesizer.

Convincing people to pay for such services means getting them very precise information in a form they can use, notes Gerald Conover, a technology manager at Ford Motor and chairman of the International Affairs Council at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. “Say I’m in Manhattan,” he says. “What I want is the real-time traffic environment on the street that I’m driving on, as well as the streets above and below me. I want the sensor data on a map so I can make instant decisions.”

On this front, GPS could really strut its stuff. While GPS won’t send traffic data, it might play a key role in helping drivers receive it. Using a wireless link, a driver might download real-time traffic data that an onboard computer could filter based on the car’s GPS-derived position. If the news was bad, navigation software could offer alternate routes. This information could be paid for by subscription, or delivered free along with advertising (geared to location in many cases: McDonald’s at the next exit!”).

But even if the right business models and communications methods are found, another concern remains: guaranteeing privacy. Drivers worry their toll tags, cell phones and other gadgets could be used to track their movements for market research, surveillance or to mete out speeding tickets, says James X. Dempsey,
deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a Washington, DC-based privacy organization. “The real concern here is that the information could be compiled and used to categorize, characterize and judge people,” says Dempsey.

The fears of E-ZPass owners on this front were tempered when Transcom agreed to scramble identifying information before launching the program in 1995. But the solution to the cell-phone privacy problem is somewhat less clear. Cell-phone trackers U.S. Wireless and TruePosition insist they don’t record caller identity on their networks. “We couldn’t care less who the callers are,” says U.S. Wireless’s Howard Blank. “We use dummy identifiers like caller number one’ and caller number two.’” But company promises aren’t backed up by law.While telecom companies are barred from disclosing someone’s identity without consent, Dempsey notes that upstarts like U.S.Wireless technically aren’t telecom carriers, and so they aren’t covered by such restrictions. The Cellular Communications Industry Association, a Washington, DC-based trade organization, recently proposed that the FCC develop privacy guidelines that include a provision for notifying customers of how their cell signals might be used.

Another view is that people will gladly cede some of their privacy for the chance to beat a traffic jam. Highway administrators in San Francisco, one of the first cities to explore cell-phone traffic sensing in detail, are about to put that view to the test. The region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission is poised to sign a six-year, $5.2 million contract to study whether the U.S.Wireless approach can augment the brainpower of the city’s magnetic-loop-based “intelligent highways.”

“We’d like to use the system to develop highway speed profiles that drivers could use,” says Michael Berman, project manager with the Bay Area commission. First, though, they’re convening focus groups and conducting surveys on the privacy question.

Will the public accept it? That’s an open question. But has the technology arrived to lead traffic management into the wireless age? That call has already been made.

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