It’s 8:15 on a Monday morning as you pull out of the driveway and begin your daily commute to the office. Suddenly, the phone rings and a voice on the other end tells you the route you normally take to work is backed up because of an accident. The voice then suggests an alternate route where traffic is minimal.

Sounds like a vision of the commuter future? That’s because it is, only a future much nearer than you might think, according to Murray Hills, NJ-based Lucent Technologies and a company out of New York called MetroCommute

The latter gathers information through a network of cameras and city traffic authorities and provides traffic information to media outlets like CBS as well as commuters in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Hartford, Conn. through its Web site.

Within the next two-to-three months, MetroCommute will launch a voice service, offering commuter information by telephone courtesy of Lucent’s PhoneBrowser technology. MetroCommute plans an initial rollout of PhoneBrowser in 15 U.S. cities, with the service reaching Toronto in the first half of 2002, and Vancouver, Montreal and possibly Edmonton in the latter part of that year.

“You can think of it working in two different ways — a pull application and a push,” said Dave Stahl, a director in Lucent’s new ventures group. “The pull application is, you call up the number and identify yourself and the computer looks at your profile. It knows between the hours of 5:30 and 6:30, you’re commuting over a certain route and it gives you information about what’s going on on that route.

‘The push is, in your profile you tell it, ‘I always drive on this route between 6:30 and 7 am.’ If the system sees any traffic congestion on that route during those times, it will call you and warn you out of the congestion.”

Commuters complete a profile when they subscribe to the service, though they are able to call and get information outside of their profile, if for example, they are travelling on an unusual route.

Stahl said PhoneBrowser works in a manner similar to the popular movie-information service Moviefone. Both were developed at Lucent’s Bell Labs. The difference between the technologies is Moviefone is based on Voice XML, meaning it requires separate Web sites for Voice XML and HTML. In contrast, PhoneBrowser can interact directly with an HTML site.

PhoneBrowser, which has already been employed to provide voice-enabled sports scores, stock quotes and weather, works by matching voice commands to a collection of possible responses compiled for each Web page.

“When you speak a command, the command is analogous to a mouse point-and-click,” Stahl said. “You’re pointing at a hot-link on a Web page.”

Lemonides said MetroCommute has traditionally developed technology for compiling and disseminating its traffic information in house, but recognized PhoneBrowser offered a value-add MetroCommute could not match internally.

“It allowed us to almost instantly convert our Web site information into voice,” Lemonides said, adding that MetroCommute looked at a number of providers before settling on Lucent.

Under terms of the agreement announced last week, MetroCommute acquired the worldwide rights to license Lucent’s PhoneBrowser technology and Lucent received a minority stake in MetroCommute.

As it beta-tests the PhoneBrowser technology, MetroCommute is finalizing pricing plans for the service. Lemonides said MetroCommute is looking at split models, with, for example, a free service paid for by advertising and a fee service without ads. Also, he said, commuters might be able to dial in for free, but pay for the service to call them with alerts.

Though the service is currently able to offer only obvious alternate routes, Stahl said diversion capabilities should become more developed in the near future. He also said the service will be more valuable once GPS and geolocation technology are more widespread.

“You won’t have to tell the system where you are,” he said. “It will know where you are.”

Stahl admitted this geolocation technology raises privacy issues. He said users will need an opt-in or opt-out clause, especially if the technology is expanded beyond traffic to include target marketing by stores and restaurants when a user is in the neighbourhood.

“I think the jury is still out as to whether people are going to tolerate that,” he said.

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