Beating traffic tie ups with technology

It’s not just your imagination – traffic really is getting worse. But there are technologies out there to help drivers beat gridlock and make more efficient use of the time spent in their vehicles.

Toronto and Montreal both made the top 20 in IBM’s global Commuter Pain study, coming in sixteenth and twentieth respectively on a list topped by Mexico City, Shenzen and Beijing. In the study examining commute times and stress levels, Toronto drivers reported year-over-year increases in stress (40 per cent felt more stressed this year vs 14 per cent in 2010), anger (29 per cent vs 14 per cent last year) and negative impacts of commuting on job or school performance (29 per cent, up from 17 per cent last year).

It’s a situation Blair Currie knows all to well. Since he commutes from his Toronto home to his job in Waterloo, Ont., he experiences long drive times firsthand. But he’s also in a position to help do something about it. He’s vice-president of marketing at Intelligent Mechatronic Systems Inc. (IMS), a company whose technology is designed to help drivers beat traffic jams and use their in-car time more effectively.

“The digital revolution that’s come to the office and the home has come to the car,” Currie says. “It’s making the car conform to you instead of you conform to the car for once.”

IMS’s Metro Traffic Engine (MTE) platform collects real time traffic data from smartphone signals, loop sensors embedded in roads (the kind that activate traffic lights when you drive over them), and GPS systems in mobile phones and cars.

“We get data points from all those signals and as they get aggregated, we get an even clearer (traffic) data picture,” Currie says.

After MTE aggregates those signals into data, it calculates traffic speeds and streams the information to users in two formats: a colour-coded map showing traffic volume on various routes (roads with heavy traffic appear in black or red while lighter traffic flow is denoted in yellow or green), or text-based data stating drive times between two points based on traffic volume (17 minutes to drive from Point A to Destination B, for example). Both types of traffic data are displayed on a screen mounted inside the driver’s vehicle.

“We custom design that portal for each customer’s needs. It’s not off-the-shelf,” Currie says.

IMS says the data is so timely that if a car accident or police road block pops up at street level, it will appear on MTE’s streaming data or maps less than 30 seconds later. MTE can also automatically alert drivers about those delays and suggest alternate routes.

For now, IMS is aiming MTE at municipal government clients, with a tiered plan to roll it out to business customers and eventually consumers. Potential enterprise clients include transport fleets, emergency vehicles, and news media looking to give their audience real time traffic reports.

“We’ve got ongoing business with the largest cities in Ontario,” Currie says, although he declines to name them (and at least one large UK city using ETM) for reasons of client confidentiality.

One of the enterprise customers IMS will cite by name is Canadian Blood Services (CBS), the non-profit organization that manages Canada’s blood donation and supply system.

“If there’s an accident on the highway it’s critical that people have traffic information. It’s life and death. It’s about as strong a case as you can put forward. CBS bought our service because it helps them plan their route to an accident,” Currie says.

IMS also developed iLane, a voice activated system that gives drivers a hands-free way to access their email, text messages, news, weather updates, and appointment calendar while they’re driving. The system not only helps drivers obey the law (talking and texting while driving will be banned in every Canadian province and territory as of Jan. 1, 2012) but also stay productive when they’re not in their offices. iLane, which also works with IMS designed mobile apps, helps drivers deal with the expectation that people are connected to each other and their information at all times as mobile devices become ubiquitous, Currie says.

“What’s happening in your office is likely also happening in your car,” Currie says.

Of course there are several other technologies on the market to help drivers beat traffic tie ups or stay productive in their vehicles,including Google Maps and some others covered here.

Christine WongChristine Wong is a Staff Writer at Follow her on Twitter, and join in the conversation on the IT Business Facebook Page.

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