Phoning Your Way Home

Not too long ago, when driving back from a business meeting, I suddenly found myself totally gridlocked in the middle of the four-lane highway that feeds into East London. A chemical spillage had closed the road and would keep it closed for over six hours. Complete chaos ensued.

So where were the intelligent road systems that could have warned and then helped drivers to exit the motorway and use alternative minor roads? We all read about these intelligent traffic-management schemes and to be fair there are lots, and I do mean lots, of traffic-control schemes being developed and implemented—too many to mention in this column.

One idea currently being looked at shows great imagination and could provide an innovative method for monitoring and measuring traffic flow on a continuous real-time basis. And it would happen by exploiting your cell phone.

Firstly, we have to accept a reasonable assumption these days that nearly all moving cars have a cell phone riding in them. And that these phones are switched on and, therefore, constantly transmitting their location to the network providers even when no connection is being made. So what we have is not only a cell phone, but also your very own car location transmitter. Move the car and the signal of the phone moves.

The next step is to have a system that triangulates the position of the phone signal and voilà, the location of the vehicle. Multiply this across the hundreds of thousands of vehicles on our national roads, and you have a traffic-monitoring system with the ability to provide real-time traffic flow analysis. This data could then be relayed to intelligent traffic-management systems to help relieve congestion and rapidly identify the start of gridlock situations as well as suggest under-utilised escape routes.

Nice idea. But here are some sensitive aspects related to it. Firstly, privacy. The system would have to guarantee anonymity and, secondly, the data should not be available to any commercial enterprise.

So, is such an idea really feasible? Only time will tell. But it’s an intriguing coincidence that a couple of days before I found myself sitting in gridlock thinking about all this, Nokia had reached an agreement to buy NAVTEG, an American company that provides digital map information for automotive navigation systems, mobile navigation devices, and Internet-based mapping applications. Nokia is the largest mobile device manufacturer with more than 900 million people worldwide using a Nokia mobile device. Interesting to ponder what road that deal could lead us down.

What’s certain, though, is that intelligent traffic control has become a big, and essential, business. Take Europe for example. Transportation creates nearly 10% of Europe’s economy, and with traffic volumes escalating at a 22% clip every year, intelligent systems are the only hope for avoiding the commercially damaging gridlocks that otherwise would be inevitable.

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