Traffic information: The cell phone is becoming the navigation system of the future

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Traffic information: The cell phone is becoming the navigation system of the future-navigation

Mathematician Alexandre Bayen with the computer on which the central traffic jam software runs. It transmits the traffic information to his cell phone in a matter of seconds

Source: Helmut Werb

Which car driver would not want that: traffic jam reports that do not only announce the accident when you have been standing for an hour. In California, scientists simply use the drivers’ cell phones to get up-to-date traffic news. The technology could reach Germany by the end of next year.

Vtraffic announcements that are really up to date? These are not visions of the future when it comes to Alexandre Bayen. The mathematician from the University of Berkeley in California is working on "Mobile Millenium", a project that uses motorists’ cell phones for rapid traffic announcements.

Bayen’s office is inconspicuous, with two computers on his small desk and three cell phones in front of him. This simple technology should make life easier for drivers. There are billions of cell phones in the world, says the native Frenchman, with 1.5 million being added every day from market leader and mobile millennium partner Nokia. “An increasing proportion of these telephones already have GPS functions.” GPS, that is the global positioning system, the basis of satellite-based navigation , as we know it today.

Bayen wants to prove that this communication potential from satellite and radio technology can be used for precise traffic reports. Almost ten thousand cell phone owners in the greater San Francisco area are already on the road for the large-scale test, and the messages coming in from their cell phones paint a realistic picture of the current traffic situation.

The Bay Bridge, the main artery between the San Francisco peninsula and the metropolis of Oakland, shines dark red on Bayen’s cell phone: Thousands of cars crawl along at a snail’s pace. That is the real and current state, says Bayen, who has been teaching at Berkeley for three years. Together with the already existing traffic sensors from CalTrans, the California traffic authority, the data from five thousand cell phone owners are sufficient to broadcast realistic traffic announcements to the participants in the experiment.

"We expect to be able to deploy Mobile Millenium across the United States by the second half of this year," said Lisa Waits, director at Nokia Palo Alto research center and project manager. Germany and Europe could be there by the end of next year, because the system works very easily: Interested parties in and around San Francisco can already download the necessary software free of charge from the Internet, provided they have a GPS-enabled mobile phone with Java programming architecture.

Once the software has been set up, the cell phones inform each other. Within seconds, every Mobile Millennium participant is informed not only about the traffic jam on the Bay Bridge, but also about the traffic situation on the inner-city streets. This marvel is not only made possible by the information from networked road users or the messages from taxis and buses in the city, but also by the algorithms of Alexandre Bayen. Its arithmetic operations are the secret behind everything and could perhaps one day become as valuable as the formulas that the Google search engine uses to find its way around the Internet.

For years, automakers have been working on similar technologies known as "car-to-car communication". The problem is to equip enough cars with the necessary technology. “We have the bulk,” says Lisa Waits. Every driver has a cell phone with him. "In the US there are already 100 million cell phones with GPS functionality." If only five percent of these phones were in use for Mobile Millenium, says Alexandre Bayen, that would be enough for traffic announcements. "With ten percent we would have reliability."

However, data protectionists warn against the glass driver, because he also reveals his privacy. Dorothy Glancy, law professor at Santa Clara University, warns of abuse. "Electronic tracking", that is, following digital tracks, has been banned in California for ten years. But it is "not clear how Mobile Millenium complies with the guidelines, or whether their compliance is assessed".

Lisa Waits, on the other hand, argues that with Mobile Millenium the user identification is deleted before each data transfer. “We built in three layers to protect privacy,” says Alexandre Bayen. “First of all, all data is anonymous. Secondly, we use the same encryption as the banks, and thirdly, we only use data where we need it – that is, not when you park in front of your own garage. ”In addition, the operators of the cellular networks can already know the location of every user up to three hundred Identify meters precisely, without any legal concerns.

How Nokia is getting back its million dollar investment in Mobile Millenium, Lisa Waits cannot – or does not want to – say. Chargeable services are conceivable that are adapted to the individual expectations of the user, such as predictions about the daily commute to work. And also advertising for drivers who fancy a pizza on their way or who could be offered a special bargain at the supermarket around the corner.

All of this is feasible with the rapid transfer of information via mobile phone. “Technologically, we can predict the flow of traffic in five or ten minutes,” says Alexandre Bayen. “Of course we can’t foresee an accident, that would be black magic. But we can already see the traffic jam that builds up in front of you within four minutes after the accident in real time. "

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