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An App that Could Stop Traffic

Algorithms that automatically reroute your car look like the next trend in mobile mapping.
July 25, 2012

Traffic usually produces aggravation. But for Christian Brüggemann, it led to app inspiration.

While sitting in a London café with a buddy, observing cars packed onto one street while another was empty, he thought, what if vehicles could be directed in such a way that optimized all the possible routes?

Brüggemann, 25, and two of his friends, all of them students at universities in Germany, used this idea to create a Windows Phone app called Greenway that aims to thwart traffic jams and get you from one point to another in the shortest amount of time.

While existing mapping apps such as Waze and Google Maps show their users traffic jams and hazards and offer alternate routes, Greenway hopes to prevent backups from occurring in the first place by using software to predict where drivers are heading. The approach is part of a broader trend that has, for example, seen some insurers offer rates tailored to a person’s driving habits—after tracking their movements via a GPS unit attached to the car.

The Greenway app, which is being tested by dozens of smartphone users around Munich, Germany, has already gained some recognition by clinching an environmental sustainability award (and a $10,000 prize) at Microsoft’s annual Imagine Cup student technology competition in July. The Greenway group is now trying to secure funding to bring its app to iPhone and Android smartphone users.

The app offers users two routes to their destination: a standard shortest one and a traffic-optimized Greenway one, along with the approximate amount of time and fuel it would take to get there using each. If you choose the Greenway path, the app will ping Greenway’s server every 30 seconds with your GPS location to determine if the current route is still the best—a decision made based on knowledge about your location and speed and information about other Greenway users on the road.

Greenway assumes each street has a certain capacity based on its length, number of lanes, and speed limit, Brüggemann says, and reserves slots for participating drivers, directing cars so a road never reaches maximum capacity.

If a jam does occur—which Greenway would detect by looking at your average speed—the app will react by rerouting drivers.

Brüggemann says the group’s software can currently simulate up to 50,000 cars, and says results show that, on average, cars taking Greenway routes make it to their destination twice as fast and use up to 20 percent less fuel.

Of course, the Greenway app will be most useful if more people use it: Brüggemann estimates that about 10 percent of drivers in a city would need to have it running for it to work optimally. The team is hoping to make this happen by partnering with taxi companies.

The app is free. The group plans to make money by charging a small amount for the optimized navigation. Brüggemann says the fee—no more than 30 cents per route—will be calculated as 5 percent of the amount of fuel the app estimates you’re saving multiplied by the average per-liter fuel price at the time. This way, he believes, users will still save fuel and Greenway will also get paid. And if you don’t get to your destination in the promised amount of time, you won’t be charged, he says.

But just because Greenway can get you somewhere faster doesn’t always mean you’ll save fuel. Benjamin Seibold, an assistant professor at Temple University who studies traffic flow behavior, says traffic research indicates that even if you take a shorter route, your car may consume more gas if you’re driving in traffic that is less steady.

Still, Seibold thinks there’s potential for software like Greenway to reduce traffic jams and travel times. Other navigation systems that he’s aware of just show drivers current traffic information, he says, so a jam you see on a touch screen in your car might be gone by the time you arrive at that spot on the road.

“Using a predictor like in the Greenway system, even if it’s not perfect, will still give a significant leap forward compared with using nothing,” he says.

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