Technology Rides to Rescue Rubberneckers
It's the bane of any Tampa Bay-area commuter: Sooner or later, you're going to wade into the sea of red brake lights that signifies yet another traffic tie-up.
Until recently, the only way to avoid the daily slog was to listen to the radio to get periodic traffic reports. Or you could dial a service that updates you on where traffic accidents are creating lines of 'rubberneckers.'
Several new services are aiming to keep you up to date with the flow and ebb of traffic - in real time.
One such service now being road-tested in Tampa is called IntelliOne. The Atlanta-based business hones in on the signals transmitted from cell phones every time drivers go between the towers that make up each 'cell.'
Ronald Herman is the company's CEO.
HERMAN: Two of the reasons we selected Tampa as a spot for us to test our technology is because of the geographical challenges with all of the bridges, the waterways, specifically waterways in general. They wreak havoc on cell phone signals. You may have one tower going over the Sunshine Skyway, and halfway over you'll flip to three other towers.
That, and Tampa is becoming somewhat legendary for its traffic tieups.
HERMAN: Because of the congestion and the traffic problems we have here in Tampa, along with the 'pick the most difficult site and every place else will be that much easier,' that's what we like to do.
The information can be transmitted through voice over a cellphone, by a text message or via the onboard navigation system in some new cars. Herman said IntelliOne will provide the information to a number of other companies, which will market the service to motorists.
His temporary office just off Tampa International Airport is akin to a traffic engineer's dream - or a commuter's nightmare. Traffic is squeezed into one road between downtown and where I-275 connects to the Courtney Campbell Causeway and the Veteran's Expressway.
Herman drives his company's Jeep while a reporter sits in the back seat with a laptop computer. On it, a map flashes updates of how traffic is flowing on the major arteries. A green Howard Frankland Bridge means traffic is moving at normal speeds. That changes to a bright red on the bridge's Tampa side.
HERMAN: The fact that there are so many potential routes going from A point to B point, you really need to better understand the road network and relieve congestion. Let's say if just one out of every 100 cars, if they were to take the information that the IntelliOne system is capable of providing and using it to get off their expressway a little faster - instead of taking Exit 6 and taking Exit 3 - and knowing how to navigate around congestion, that's one less car stuck in traffic.
Herman says by the end of next year, the technology will be in dozens of the nation's top metropolitan areas.
Then, there's the issue of privacy. Cell phone signals are tracked automatically, but Herman says they can't tap into the voice stream, so they can't listen to calls. And he says the system doesn't know which phone is being tracked.
HERMAN: We don't know who it is, and we don't care who it is. That information is way beyond the scope of our project or our program. This is the raw data we get when our cell phone communicates with the towers. Where we get the information, we don't know who it is. So we can't tell whether it's you or me, we just know it's a single device.
Another system being developed is the state's 511 system. The free service uses sensors embedded in parts of the most heavily-traveled roadways. You dial 511, and ask for traffic conditions on that highway.
Marian Scorza is a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
SCORZA: You call 511, and it'll ask if you want information on traffic or other services. And then you say 'traffic,' and you can say the roadway that you want, like I-275, or I-75, and we have a list of roadway segments.
She says not every roadway in the Tampa Bay area is on the 511 system. Installation of the sensors began two years ago, and now 85 miles of the area's Interstates are part of the system.
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