How Good Is Traffic Information?

It's happened to us all -- you're stuck in traffic when the traffic reporter told you everything was clear. "What's going on?" you ask yourself. "I thought my new real-time traffic system would prevent this kind of thing." It seems the old computer saying -- garbage in, garbage out -- applies to the new real-time traffic systems.

Now that the novelty of getting traffic information via a cell phone, computer, in-car device or handheld unit has become a given, it is time to ask the question just how good is the data that consumers are getting. One company that is raising that question is TrafficGauge, which has invested heavily in its own traffic aggregation server technology. The server incorporates real-time data from Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and private traffic information vendors.

Even then there can be problems, the company admits. The difficulties associated with traffic data feeds are threefold: each data feed is uniquely formatted, can be error-prone and has challenges with the collection mechanisms. This all makes the server technology complex. The aggregation server typically applies numerous algorithms to enhance or discard the vast amount of potentially erroneous data that is used to create the traffic map delivered to end-users.

TrafficGauge says its technology is the best in the industry because it has the largest numbers of paying subscribers who provide feedback via the 800-telephone number on the TrafficGauge handheld product. No other traffic aggregation company has 'real' customers who help by providing feedback that's used to learn, tune, and enhance server technology. The company claims the mobile market is much more demanding than the Web-based market, given that erroneous traffic information can be disproved in real-time by a commuter who experiences something other than what was reported. One of the largest challenges in the industry is that data is known to have problems because of the data collection challenges that are inherent in all traffic flow measurements.

Throughout the world, so-called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) projects have been deployed to help efficiently control traffic congestion using technology. As a result of some of these projects, inductive loop sensors have been embedded in roadways to collect traffic data. Over time these systems have been extended and the information made public via transportation agencies. With the popularity of the Internet, Web sites that display traffic maps have become increasingly popular.

The problem is the loop sensors were deployed for reasons other than reporting traffic flow information to commuters. It was only later that the technology began to be used with ramp metering systems to control the flow of vehicles entering the highway dynamically. As the data needs and real-time nature of the ramp metering systems increased, so did the availability of real-time data. This next led to tools for traffic management sensors, which eventually led to the development of publicly accessible traffic maps.

The state and local information gathering systems all operate independently, and this has naturally led to major technology differences between data collection techniques. Given the lack of government agency standards and the complexity of collecting data in a harsh and inconsistent environment, it's a difficult challenge to collect and disseminate accurate and useful traffic information.

Private companies have also engaged in the business of collecting real-time traffic information. They use a handful of unique technologies like cell phone tracking, GPS automobile tracking and government-funded sensor deployments. The key technology developed by TrafficGauge is its traffic aggregation server which "elegantly" handles these different configurations and converts the various data feeds into a standardized format combining the strengths and masking the weaknesses of each data source.

Often, reports are plagued with erroneous data. Algorithms are applied to scrub the data helping to produce what customer feedback has called good information. As an example, the Los Angeles traffic sensor network typically has over 60 percent failed sensors. The server automatically weeds through this data mess with logic created from years of consumer and data experience.

Users of traffic data have high expectations in mobile applications where services are being put to the test on the road and being directly compared to the taillights directly ahead. Some traffic information providers often incorrectly report levels of congestion, painting an incomplete picture to the end user. TrafficGauge's unique map design conveys more information in a short amount of time compared to literal maps while still maintaining a much smaller display area. Recent acquisitions of Navteq, TeleAtllas and Traffic have left TrafficGauge as one of the only independent companies that provides traffic aggregation services.

The future of real-time traffic reporting should be rosier than its past. One can only hope that the current experiences of traffic information users won't sour them on the use of this technology in the future.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.