Will In-Car Social Media Kill the Traffic Jam?
In-car cloud computing is on the rise, and with it voice-controlled directions, entertainment and, yes, social media. What good could come from in-car tweets? Some experts argue this could spell the end for traffic jams.
An upcoming feature to the OnStar platform will enable drivers to update their Facebook status and have their news feed and Twitter feed read aloud to them. Ford's Sync-based MyFord Touch system as well as the just-announced Toyota Entune also offer the large number of in-car mobile apps with friend-finding functionality. It seems that social media has finally found a place in our daily commute. But the in-car cloud will mean more than streaming music and an increased risk of driver distraction — it will offer a wealth of live information on driving conditions. Social media apps could be used to gather and disseminate data to guide commuters on the quickest way home. But can social media really kill the traffic jam?
As mobile devices and dashboard services become increasingly intertwined, drivers are now able to communicate traffic and road conditions back to the cloud to be interpreted, verified and distributed to a network of equipped drivers. Traffic reports have been a standard feature on TomToms and Garmin GPS units for years now. But this data is limited by systems that rely on historical traffic data, which may serve as a passable reference model but does not account for variables such as road changes and developments that put more cars in circulation. "The real value in crowd-sourced data in terms of solving traffic congestion is that it gives you insight into traffic conditions on all roads," says Jim Bak, director of community relations for the traffic information group Inrix.
Inrix's traffic analysis goes beyond historical traffic data and weather conditions, providing a five-day traffic forecast by factoring in a web of schedules including school bus routes, events such as football games and concerts and region-specific traffic-causers such as the legislative calendar in D.C. Inrix's open communication with state Departments of Transportation (DOT) ensures that official street closings and detours are reflected and incidents and traffic reports are reported, though these are subject to verification through official responders, traffic information partners and corroborating civilian reports. Such validation is as tricky for client-based reporting as it is for the interpreters, because there's no uniform way of addressing the variety of existing roadways. "Some services like Google also fall short because they treat arterials, city streets and local roads just like stretches of uninterrupted highway," Bak says. "They don't have the sophisticated algorithms required to provide accurate traffic on these roads and end up misinterpreting cars stopping for traffic lights, stop signs and roundabouts as traffic jams when in reality they are just a normal part of the roadway."
Inrix has clients for Android and iPhone and also licenses its data for use in platforms such as Microsoft's Sync, used by Ford, which will be releasing its AppLink feature next month. Inrix also pulls 60 percent of its data from fleets of industry vehicles, creating a reporting pool of about 3 million vehicles. For Inrix, the greatest challenge is creating the models for informing drivers in a quick and easy (read, safe) way from the massive amount of data accrued.
Waze, another traffic crowd-sourcing application for mobile devices has 2.2 million registered users worldwide, each donating 300 minutes of user data each month. When the application is open, Waze passively records GPS and speed, creating a picture for others to see how severe traffic is on a particular road. Accidents, detours and police activity can be flagged to other users with a few clicks. This kind of user-initiated feedback is rewarded through the application by providing users with arcade-style power-ups for relaying information back to the crowd. Users are also encouraged to help update and correct the proprietary map service that Waze utilizes and can even record new roads if they've been left off entirely. Waze hopes to monetize the application by providing offers and coupons for venues along some of the more frequently recorded routes. Waze's approach is kept within the crowd, however; the service does not offer DOT or third-party integration.
But is all of this crowd-sourced information really useful? Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)" is not so sure. "Any kind of real-time distributive mechanism can certainly help, but people are not Internet packets — they generally have their optimal travel times, travel patterns," Vanderbilt says. "The classic issue is if everyone is told road A is suddenly not congested, everyone shifts to road A, and it becomes congested. Past a certain point, when roads reach the sort of capacities that spill into stop-and-go traffic, route information isn't going to matter much." In short, a crowd-sourced network is only as good as the number of participants, and alternate routes on local roads are only useful when the roads are below capacity.
Current traffic-reporting systems rely on road sensors deployed and maintained by state DOTs, combined with traffic video feeds and official incident reports by police and other municipalities. These sensors have served us well but are stationary, subject to malfunction and require constant upkeep (and the state budgets to do so). Applications could fill the vaccuum by creating a network of sprawling, moving agents, powered by devices communicating instantly to the cloud. "The old joke is that the radio traffic reports never report on the actual traffic you're stuck in," Vanderbilt says, "and while we've certainly gotten better than that, the key issues are coverage and latency."
Bak and other social traffic entrepreneurs aren't discouraged: "Moore's law applies to traffic information as much as it applies to anything else," Bak says. "What's more important is how that data is interpreted that makes the difference. You can have all the data in the world, but if you're not intelligently processing and analyzing that data, it's of little value."
Put in another way, while crowd-sourcing offers unprecedented amounts of traffic data, the existing infrastructure — the roads — can only hold so many cars at any given time. As Vanderbilt says, "IBM could no doubt come up with a 'big data' application that could route everyone to their destination with minimal traffic interference — but it means you might have to visit Aunt Sally at 4:30 am."
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And you thought texting and talking on the cell phone constituted distracted driving. Everything come around. What social media network years ago was called the party line, for those old enough to remember. The planned use of social networking now was called CB radio then. One warning of a traffic jam was received by everyone with a CB tuned to channel 19.
As for the screen shown you have to look at it which means you are not looking at the road. Even the GPS located in the dash takes your eyes off the road whereas one that sits against the window at least allows you to look and not take your eyes totally off the road. Driving is a full time job. I don't want someone trying to get the Facebook message while driving in traffic at 70mph. Simply because you are going hands free doesn't mean your attention is on driving.