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clairvoyant traffic reports?

By enelson
Tuesday, February 12th, 2008 at 8:16 pm in 511, BART, Caltrans, driving, Freeways, technology.


I get a fair number of calls from people with wacky stories or ideas, like the guy who called the other day and thought that BART’s computers were under the control of evil hackers. I wanted to tell him that evil hackers only subvert sophisticated, post-1990s software.

Today I got a call from somebody whom I could believe, although I have no solid foundation to do so or not. Still, what he said makes sense and I’ll let that be the blog’s verification standard for today.

As so often happens with these calls, he’d gotten my number from a story, this one about a U.C. Berkeley test on I-880 of a real-time traffic reporting system that relies on cell phones with GPS. It’s a tidy little concept: No sensors except the satellites for the GPS and the cell towers for the phones. All you have to do is trust that they’re not reporting your movements to the National Security Agency, or worse yet, your boss.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s 511 system does this (traffic reports, we hope not NSA notification) with a combination of its own FasTrak transponder readers as well as Caltrans’ pavement-embedded loop detectors and, if I’m not mistaken, radar.  It’s expensive, and, forgive me for being greedy, but it doesn’t predict the future.

This caller told me that back in the 1980s, he and a partner began developing a concept that they later patented that would tell you what the traffic would be before it happened. I was thinking I’d seen this on an episode of “Dr. Who,” but I kept listening.

It is somewhat futuristic, or at least is was back in the 1980s when the idea of me landing a job at a newspaper was somewhat science-fictional. Everybody has a guidance system, you know, like the one you got for Christmas? And the guidance system knows where everybody’s going all the time.

Of course, our current GPS systems only know that when we aren’t going to work or some other place we already know so well it hurts. But work with me. So supposing we have these “guidance” systems, to use 1980s parlance, that always know where we’re going. These systems tell a central system where drivers are going, and voila! It knows were the traffic’s going to back up before it actually backs up.

Now Mr. Inventor told me  his lawyers are working on collecting against various entities who may or may not have infringed on his patent, but that’s not what interested me.

The guys doing Friday’s test said they expected that in a few years, everybody would have GPS, and thus a guidance system of sorts, in their cell phones.

The idea that we could get not just real-time traffic reports, but future traffic reports is something that is not only great science fiction, but appears to be pretty close to reality.

Dr. Who “Gridlock” photo from

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