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 trafficmanagement schemes and to be fair there are 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 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 your very own car location transmitter. Move the car and the phone’s signal moves.

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

Nice idea. But there are some sensitive aspects related to it. Firstly, privacy. The system must guarantee anonymity and, secondly, no commercial enterprise should have access to the data.

So, is such an idea really feasible? Only time will tell. But it’s an intriguing coincidence that a couple of days before sitting in this gridlock, Nokia agreed 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 using one of its devices. Interesting to ponder what road that deal could lead us down.

What’s certain, though, is that intelligent traffic control has become a big, essential business. In Europe, for example, transportation creates nearly 10% of its economy. And with traffic volumes escalating at a 22% clip per year, intelligent systems are the only hope for avoiding commercially damaging gridlocks.

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