Navigating traffic gridlock in the age of Google

If you need any more evidence that we live in the digital age – for good – consider traffic gridlock, and how digital media is being used to deal with it.

Traffic in major metropolitan areas has never been worse. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area it’s a constant problem. One digital angle is that the tech boom has done so much for the local economy, a good thing, it’s resulted in mega traffic issues, a bad thing. So many of the highways still have short suicide ramps and other outmoded aspects. There’s not enough space and money to build new roads and transit building is stalled, so Californians are looking to digital technology for relief.

Technology can help, with travel-time estimates posted on electronic sign boards, ramp metering and increased use of the FasTrak instant toll pay system at Bay Area bridges. But for now, our primary weapon against getting stuck in traffic is Google Maps. We don’t leave home without it. It colors roads red, yellow and green to tell us what to avoid, or how long we’ll be delayed. Google also incorporates social media reports of “incidents,” a nice word for horrific crashes.

If the color is gray, there’s not enough data, but that never happens. There’s always data, because there are always Android cell phone users driving nearly everywhere. When you turn on Google Maps and accept GPS tracking, you beam information back to Google on where and how fast your phone is traveling. Google uses the combined mass of phone data to give a fairly accurate idea of traffic. It’s not always on the money but it catches up pretty soon.

Google – for us it’s “the lady” voice in our phones – suggests alternate routes, and we’ve gone on some wild rides through the back streets in order to avoid gridlock. We also worry about too many Google users taking the alternate route at once and creating another jam, something we’ve experienced. The engineers are working on an algorithm that will reroute some users and not others.

Of course Californians are to blame for a lot of their accidents and resulting jams. As a newcomer to this area, I’ve noticed a few aspects to their driving. I often wonder what a Californian would choose given the options of a fantastic dinner, dream round of golf at Pebble or Cypress Point, or a stretch of clear concrete on the freeway ahead. I’m not so sure they wouldn’t choose the latter.

Tailgating is a way of life out here. There is never a point when you are driving, anywhere, when a car isn’t following closely behind you. Always. Someone else always drives faster than you, and there is always someone who drives faster than the hell-bent-for-leather guy passing you. Everyone is in a hurry. Even if there are brake lights ahead, drivers, particularly pick-up trucks, will gun it until they are forced to stop. The HOV lane on the left is actually a super speed lane. It’s not for HOV. Find yourself sandwiched between the ubiquitous median barrier and three semis with a few feet of room on either side? No problem, drive 75 and hope your car doesn’t become a metal pinball.

Google says it tries to keep the information it collects on how fast that phone in your car is traveling anonymous. If you looked at the speeds on an average California highway, they’d all be 15 or 30 miles above the limit. Can you imagine authorities giving e-tickets to drivers based on phone monitoring?

THE NEXT WEAPON AGAINST TRAFFIC GRIDLOCK: SELF-DRIVING CARS

My nephew is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, with an emphasis on aerospace engineering. He’s researching applications of GPS. I asked him about digital media, technology and traffic and he answered that self-driving cars are the hottest thing going on there, primarily being developed by Google.

A world of self-driving cars going the speed limit is attractive. With regular, constant speeds it would seemingly be more orderly and predictable. The problems are many, however, according to published reports. Human drivers can’t coexist with driverless cars. The humans would take advantage, speeding by the self-drivers – yes, breaking the law as U.S. drivers do every day – and the resulting confusion causes accidents.

Software glitches are an issue. And just like California drivers, the cars can’t respond to weather conditions, even rain. The cars can’t make judgments about situations to react to as they are presented. Roads haven’t been minutely mapped to give the cars the data they need. The cars can’t respond well to construction signs and detours, stopping totally if they sense a problem. They can’t judge whether a person on the side of the road needs help. Heck, they can’t even avoid a pothole.

My nephew, Kazuma Gunning, said: “Google’s implementation has some $75,000 worth of sensors sitting on top that are obviously prohibitively expensive. However, the advancements that they’re making in reducing the cost of the navigation sensors will propagate to other uses in time.

“One of the primary challenges in autonomous vehicles is precise positioning. A basic GPS receiver, such as that in your smart phone, will provide a positioning accuracy of about three meters. For a self-driving car, this is not enough. It won’t even tell you what lane you’re in.

“Google’s implementation of the self-driving car uses a combination of LIDAR (laser radar), precise GPS (likely requiring a base station in the general area to talk to), and of course a great deal of cameras to see street signs, pedestrians, other cars, et cetera,” Gunning added.

It doesn’t sound like self-driving cars are coming around the street corner any time soon. Yet my nephew and other would-be futurists say self-driving cars are the future. Maybe, and that and other digital technology is helping us manage traffic gridlock better. But for now, most of the time there’s little we can do about too many cars on the road at the same time.

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