D.C. Project Uses Cell Phones As Traffic Trackers

Beltway Gridlock Serves as a Sort of Testbed for Future Intelligent Highway Data Exchange

If you travel the roadways around Washington, D.C., and have a cellular phone, this summer you may unknowingly become part of a government-sponsored traffic surveillance test with potential effects on intelligent vehicles and highways technology -- call it "superhighway information."

A public-private initiative is taking advantage of the D.C. metro area's cellular infrastructure to "geolocate" vehicles on certain sections of the roadway -- on I-270 from the I-495 Beltway to Montrose Road, I-495 west from I-270 to I-66, I-66 from I-495 to Route 123, and along several major arteries.

Real-time traffic data will be collected by monitoring vehicle progress along the designated roads.

At a traffic information center in Rockville, Md., Farradyne Systems Inc. will collect and process the raw data into usable information on traffic flow, count, speed, incidents and accidents.

Local and state governments will get the data, and Nova Delivery Inc. of Vienna, Va., plans to provide drivers with the real-time info through in-vehicle equipment.

But there is no arrangement to date that will allow all drivers to access the information. Patrick Wright of Farradyne said one manner the information could be conveyed is via radio, perhaps with a station dedicated to traffic info. Listeners could then be re-routed away from classic Washington traffic snarls.

Led by Engineering Research Associates, or ERA, the team includes Bell Atlantic Mobile, Farradyne, the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation.

Most of the $7 million project is being funded by the Federal Highway Administration, with the private partners covering the rest.

Cellular phone usage statistics will be collected by ERA equipment mounted on selected Bell Atlantic towers.

The system only monitors active cellular phones that are using Bell lines. In the metropolitan area, about one in 10 vehicles at any given time carry a mobile phone, ERA figures.

During this project, the contents of callers' conversations will remain private, said Bob Ewald, ERA project director. At no time is the identity of the cellular phone accessible, and at no time are conversations monitored, he explained.

Annandale, Va.-based KSI Inc. has developed a similar system to track vehicle paths of cellular-phone users.

But KSI's direction and locating systems use triangulation and mathematical algorithms to determine vehicle position. KSI has patented its cell-tracking technique.

Charles Hinkle Jr., KSI's director of advanced programs, said changeable message signs along the road is another way to give drivers real-time traffic info.

I-66 in Northern Virginia already has signs, but the state Department of Transportation uses cameras along the route to observe conditions.

Without any plans to give out the new data to the public, the D.C. project won't reduce traffic congestion along the capital roadways.

But if the project proves to be cost-effective, the approach could become part of a national Intelligent Vehicles Highways Systems initiative the U.S. Department of Transportation is working to cultivate.

The D.C. project is just one of dozens of experimental IVHS projects the government is sponsoring in hopes of making the nation's highway infrastructure more efficient.

Other pieces of the IVHS puzzle include on-board navigation systems, "smart cards" for electronic toll collection, crash-avoidance systems and ramp metering.

One objective stressed repeatedly by government officials, business executives and consultants attending this year's IVHS America Conference in Atlanta is that the technology should use existing infrastructure whenever possible.

Tom Tauke, executive vice president of government affairs for NYNEX, said today's IVHS projects should "rely on existing telecommunications infrastructure" and as the National Information Infrastructure evolves, it will become the foundation to make IVHS work.

The Department of Transportation is pushing local projects like the D.C. experiment so that the lessons learned here can be used as tools for developing a national plan.

Federal Transit Administrator Gordon Linton said when designing a national IVHS strategy, "We must think intermodally." We must "be smart in deploying the smart technology," he said, or all we will succeed in doing is creating "high-tech traffic jams."

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