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Alarm:clock is a daily news site that evaluates privately-held technology startups in the areas of hardware, software, the Internet, and wireless communications. One industry overview and one company profile by alarm:clock’s editors come to Technology Review every Wednesday by special arrangement.

Traffic Taming
Three startups test distinct approaches to helping drivers avoid gridlock.

As everyone knows, one of the major problems hampering evacuation efforts during hurricanes Katrina and Rita was traffic congestion. Given the number of people fleeing the storms, the gridlock may have been inevitable.

But several startups are trying to alleviate everyday slowdowns by giving drivers real-time information online about the worst congestion points.

One of the leaders in this market, Traffic.com (previously Mobility Technologies), recently announced plans for an initial public offering. And a flurry of other activity may mean this is a corner of the information services market to keep an eye on.

Traffic.com provides real-time traffic information in 24 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. It owns, and continues to expand, a wireless digital sensor network for collecting traffic and logistics data.

The network currently covers 23,000 lane-miles of roadway, where it relays information about how many cars are on the road and how quickly they’re traveling. The sensors transmit the data over a wireless network to a data center, where they’re warehoused, mined, and aggregated for distribution to customers via Internet, radio, TV, and wireless partners.

Information from the sensors is supplemented by video feeds, aircraft observations, and cell-phone reports from drivers. The company also monitors accident and construction  information; and when it calculates likely delays on common routes, it factors in special events, such as sporting events and conventions.

Motorola recently added Traffic.com data to its Viamoto wireless service, which provides location-based information through subscriptions. Traffic.com also powers the traffic section on Weather.com.

Such syndication deals are the company’s primary revenue source, with radio and TV stations as the most common users. For the first six months of 2005, the company’s revenues were $22.7 million and losses were $11.3 million.

In May 2005, Traffic.com raised $20 million in private backing. The company’s investors have included TL Ventures, Columbia Partners, Pennsylvania Early Stage Partners, and Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund. In its upcoming IPO, the company hopes to raise another $86.3 million.

A less mature but well-connected online traffic company is Seattle-based Inrix, launched in 2004 with technology licensed from Microsoft. The company’s founders and executives are former Microsoft and Expedia executives; CEO Bryan Mistele previously ran the automotive group at Microsoft.

Inrix uses Bayesian machine learning algorithms to make statistical inferences and predictions about traffic, based on variables such as weather conditions, construction schedules, holidays, sporting events, and historical traffic patterns.

The technology is now in use by more than 3,000 pilot customers in the Seattle area, and Inrix says it will roll out its products nationwide by the end of 2006. The company says users will access the technology via partner channels on a variety of devices, including smartphones and personal navigation devices, in-vehicle devices, PC desktop applications, Web portals, destination sites, and fleet applications.

Inrix recently announced it raised $6.1 million in Series A funding from Venrock Associates and August Capital.

Another traffic startup is Palo Alto-based Circumnav Networks. It turns the cars themselves into traffic data-collection devices, which then share the data wirelessly with other Circumnav-powered cars. This creates a “social network” of traffic information that all drivers in the network can use to select their routes. The prototype data-collecting device doubles as a dash-top traffic and navigation system.

Circumnav has raised seed financing and is currently looking to raise venture capital funding.

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