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Tech Takes on Congestion; So Does Transit

September 11, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Driverless cars. The Internet of autos. Drones on traffic patrol. Spatial analytics and behavioral economics. 

The strange list above offers just a taste of the latest technological efforts to tame soul-sapping road congestion. Highway authorities everywhere are focusing on such fixes because laying more pavement is cost-prohibitive as well as self-defeating as more driving is induced. Whether the same problem crops up with technical management of traffic remains to be seen.

But depending on whose methodology you believe, tech advances from ramp meters to priced congestion lanes have already smoothed out traffic in the Twin Cities area. 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation calculated a 7 percent drop in the region's freeway tieups last year, based on how much of the 758-mile system experienced persistent slowdowns below 45 miles per hour. That metric dropped from 21.4 percent in 2012 to 19.9 percent in 2013, the agency reported, despite a metro population increase of 40,000. On the other hand, the 2013 INRIX National Traffic Scorecard Annual Report, measuring different things over wider places and times, found overall metro traffic up 17 percent and congestion delays 14 percent greater.

Both of these studies, by the way, depend on technology: MNDOT's roadway detectors on 90 percent of the system, supplemented by field observations; INRIX's global positioning system data. The Holy Grail, though, is scientific wizardry that works so well there's no congestion left to measure. Here's a rundown of developments toward that goal, plus warnings about potential complications:

Autonomous vehicles

The idea here is not only that your car wouldn't need your help to navigate traffic, but also that its wireless connection with everything else on the road could maximize safe and efficient use of limited right-of-way. "The rise of the connected car ... is the coming together of communications technologies, information systems and safety devices to provide vehicles with an increasing level of sophistication and automation," the Economist noted.

This futuristic vision may be closer than we've imagined. GM just announced that in only two years it will introduce a new "Super Cruise" Cadillac that leaves most of the driving to itself. At about the same time, all Cadillac CTS models will get vehicle-to-vehicle transmitters and receivers. "But GM says it's working on a system to make sure drivers still pay attention," according to the Associated Press report.

Good thing that, although assuring watchfulness by the human seated behind the dashboard (if there's no steering wheel anymore) may be a tougher challenge than deploying the fancy cybernetics. It's important, however, because of at least two problems, one fiscal, the other technical.

Internet of cars

Unlike in the 1960s, when Congress funded the Pentagon's work that led to the Internet, federal officials have all but ruled out paying for, building or operating a wireless system linking vehicles together. "Due to the current fiscal environment, it does not seem plausible," the U.S. Department of Transportation wrote last month, according to Automotive News.

The trade journal said "that leaves a big cloud of uncertainty over the future of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications technology," although a consortium of at least eight major American, German, Japanese and South Korea automakers has been working on it for the past decade. "DOT officials have endorsed V2V as a huge leap forward in auto safety, but they are looking for someone else to manage the network, which they expect will cost about $60 million annually to maintain."

On a national scale, or even compared with Google's revenues, $60 million is small potatoes, but a greater obstacle is the threat of liability if something goes wrong and crashes occur. Anyone who doubts that possibility should remember the glitches that plagued the Affordable Health Care Act's state and federal web sites and the serial breaches of corporations' customer data. 

Clearly, there's a threat of hacker mischief to practically any computerized system. University of Michigan researchers recently showed how easy it was to get into wirelessly networked traffic signals via at least three technological weaknesses. In some places, non-scholarly hackers have posted rogue warnings —Caution: Zombies ahead!—on electronic highway message boards. While such vulnerabilities might only draw a laugh or let a geek hit all the green lights on his way home, a terrorist could cause real mayhem by penetrating a V2V network. 

"Running the network would be fiendishly complicated, requiring the government to constantly remain one step ahead of hackers and potential privacy breaches," Thilo Koslowski, a connected-car analyst at Gartner Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., told Auto News. "I don't think the government wants to take on the burden of ensuring the high reliability of this network."

While all this gets settled, a couple other tech solutions for traffic are in the works:

Drones over Atlanta

Georgia Tech researchers commissioned by the state's DOT "came up with more than 40 tasks" drones could help with, including vehicle counts, traffic management, congestion analysis, speed enforcement and even bridge inspections, according to the McClatchy News Service. The holdup is federal planning and rulemaking to address issues of safety and privacy that may be years from completion.

Weird Science

A company called Urban Engines "uses spatial analysis to create a digital replica of a city's transportation system and helps cities implement incentives based on behavioral economics that reward commuters for shifting their travel away from peak times," according to the journal Government Technology. For example, giving lottery tickets away in a pilot project in Bangalore, India, reduced peak congestion 17 percent. The firm has also crunched data for cities as far-flung as Sao Paolo, Singapore and Washington, D.C.

With all its pitfalls, technology, high or low, may still offer the likeliest solutions to traffic jams. In Minnesota, MNPass lanes, intelligent lane control signs and variable speed limits "are helping fight congestion," University of Minnesota traffic researcher John Hourdos told MPR News.

He added, however, that the best way to bust traffic jams is by increasing public transit use. Conservatives resist this common-sense solution, but building bus and rail infrastructure and service into realistic alternatives to driving can do even more than technology to reduce the costs and frustrations of congestion.

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  • Nick Musachio says:

    September 18, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Hey Conrad you forgot about a Minnesota invention Always Green Traffic Control that tames congestion by informing drivers of the correct speed to drive to make the next green light. Watch the modeling done by UMN’s Minnesota Traffic Conservatory here:
    Nick Musachio,