I am scared of making a sweeping pronouncement, but I think we’re on to something with highway congestion and traffic. There is real progress just around the bend (and beyond that construction zone over there).
First, why making this prediction scares me.
One thing we’ve learned in the last 50 years is, new highways don’t relieve congestion! I know, it seems anti-intuitive. You should increase speeds by building new roads or widening old ones. You don’t.
Instead, new roads encourage people to travel a longer distance. Take Southern California as an example. No place has more roads and more traffic. Northbound I-405 heading from Sunset Boulevard through the Sepulvada Pass and into the San Fernando Valley, as an example, has five lanes (plus a sixth as the Ventura exit is approached) and is still jammed around-the-clock (and might be the scariest road I’ve ever driven on)¹.
But what if we could make intelligent decisions in how we use our roads and make those decisions in real time?
From the New York Times:
Microsoft on Thursday plans to introduce a Web-based service for driving directions that incorporates complex software models to help users avoid traffic jams.
The new service’s software technology, called Clearflow, was developed over the last five years by a group of artificial-intelligence researchers at the company’s Microsoft Research laboratories. It is an ambitious attempt to apply machine-learning techniques to the problem of traffic congestion. The system is intended to reflect the complex traffic interactions that occur as traffic backs up on freeways and spills over onto city streets.
Let’s take this a step further. Today, nearly everyone carries a cellphone. Those cellphones, whether you’re talking or not, are communicating with individual cell sites. You are constantly revealing a rough position based on which towers hear you.
Let’s take that data and figure out where the traffic is moving, or not, right now. It’s already being done, though there are lots of troubling privacy questions. Here’s the pitch from one provider, AirSage:
Now, all you have to do is integrate that data and a routing solution like Microsoft’s Clearview and get it back to your car, probably through a GPS unit. It would be similar to today’s GPS boxes, but with two-way communications capability.
This is a solution so valuable, it’s impossible for it not to happen! And it will happen soon. Any business that puts vehicles on the street will benefit, and the benefit is absolutely quantifiable in cash. Companies won’t be able to afford not to buy the technology.
Once we start moving people to alternate routes, congestion on the main roads will clear faster. Everyone will benefit, in much the same way cars without E-ZPass get through tool booths faster because of all the cars with E-ZPass aren’t competing for the same piece of highway.
You know, this is actually a pretty exciting concept.
¹ – On this magical highway, Stef once saw a car broken down and christened its designated curbside spot, “the crying lane.”