Cellphones May Become Traffic 'Probes'

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GPS-equipped cellphones that receive turn-by-turn driving instructions and traffic updates are just catching on, but efforts are already underway to take the technology to the next level by turning them into devices that report traffic data.

Cellular phones could become the "probes" in a vast network of phones that report their rate of travel, direction and location while inside a moving vehicle. Such a network would automatically generate real-time road speed and traffic congestion reports that could be sent to other cellphone users, installed navigation systems and portable navigation devices (PNDs). The network's geographic coverage would easily exceed the coverage of today's traffic-reporting networks.

Current real-time traffic services deliver traffic incident information in fewer than 50 markets, with limited information about road speed, and with information limited to major highways. Probe data would allow more precise coverage of nearly all roads, suppliers said.

Because most cellphones contain some form of embedded GPS or location technology, the technology is already in place to convert cellphones into traffic "probes," according to Navteq and TeleAtlas, the two leading GPS map providers in the United States.

Several companies are testing ways to use GPS-equipped cellphones for acquiring traffic information without violating the privacy rights of the cellphone owner. Carrier Sprint Nextel, for example, said it participated in a "road trial" using cellphones as "anonymous" probes during the past year in conjunction with traffic aggregator AirSage of Atlanta. Several other carriers are also engaging privately in trials, said Darren Koenig, TeleAtlas wireless markets director, who added that he would not be surprised to see public trails this year by carriers.

Verizon Wireless and Cingular said they do not comment on future technology plans.

Similarly, Navteq VP Howard Hayes said that cellphones will be used to transmit real-time road speeds in the "not-too-distant future."

Cobra, a GPS device maker, called cellphone probe data "the Holy Grail" of GPS suppliers. "There's a lot of volume,and it's a nice sampling. You get all kinds of drivers, all kinds of places," said navigation director Dave Marsh.

Privacy is an issue, however. If consumers are required to give their consent before broadcasting road speed information, the size and scope of the network would be sharply curtailed, suppliers noted.

The ultimate solution, they contended, is an anonymous network that samples a percentage of the cellphones on the road and reports that data, said Koenig. "If you figure that a little over 70 percent of Americans have a cellphone, and there's an even greater percentage of cars on the road with at least one cellphone in them, if you can turn that into a probe and make that probe anonymous, you could have probe information not just in big cities, but on almost any road in any city."

Cellphones will not be the only probe devices on the road. Market plans are already underway to bring the technology to personal navigation devices (PNDs).

Dash Navigation, for example, plans to launch a probe network through new GPS devices with built-in two-way cellular technology, which will enable Dash GPS users to receive traffic speed info from every other Dash user on the road, as well as generate that data. The "Dash Express" devices are expected to go on sale nationally this summer.

Marketers expect Dash to feel competition soon from other suppliers of probe-data devices. "I think you can expect to see a range of products in the industry that work on the same principle. They certainly won't be alone in that," said Hayes of Navteq.

In fact, many of the companies that send traffic information to PNDs and cellular phones are starting to enhance their reports with probe data, often gathered from trucks and fleets already on the road and that already use some form of location device to report to dispatchers.

"I know that just about every partner that is providing traffic is building up their probe sourcing," said TomTom product management director Joanne Aliber. "It's what you really want to know — not just where the accident is but the traffic speed."

A leader in probe information is Inrix of Kirkland, Wash., which gathers probe data from 625,000 trucks and fleets on the road and sells that data to GPS makers such as Dash Navigation and to traffic services such as Clear Channel and TeleNav. Inrix reports traffic in 92 metro markets, almost twice the coverage available from traditional traffic services that rely mainly on road sensors.

Clear Channel just announced it will start using Inrix's probe data to expand its traffic coverage.

Tied into the future of traffic reporting is also "predictive data," which takes into account historical traffic patterns matched to weather, sporting events at large stadiums and local school events to predict the traffic on a given roadway at any time.

Inrix offers such predictive traffic information. "We get 10- to 15-day advanced weather forecasts, we get school schedules about a year in advance, we know construction about six to nine months in advance. In Washington, D.C., we take the legislative calendar into account, and in Las Vegas we take into account the convention schedule," said Inrix president/CEO Bryan Mistele.

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