|The battle is on to capture the most and the most accurate traffic incident data on a global scale. Several strategies are being deployed to collect this information including traditional journalistic traffic reporting and a growing variety of technology-based solutions including GPS-based probe solutions or GPS Floating Vehicle Data (GFVD) from smartphone and connected PND makers and carriers to cellular network-based probes (CFVD), video cameras, mobile phone camera probes and crowdsourcing.
GPS-based probe data networks are particularly popular with companies ranging from TomTom and Nokia to Inrix, Google and RIM. The significance of the emergence of probe data is the fact that any organization with connected devices, applications or vehicles on the road is a candidate for delivering probe data. The industry is facing a proliferation of probe data sources encompassing everyone from Waze, Skobbler and Navigon to OnStar, TeleNav and TeleCommunications Systems. The CFVD crowd includes TomTom, AirSage, iTIS Holdings, Cellint, Intellione, TrafficCast and a few others.
The inaccuracy of probe data, GPS or otherwise, is stimulating interest in license plate scanners, tolling networks and Bluetooth roadside scanners from companies such as Bluetoad. In fact, TrafficCast has already deployed or received approval to deploy Bluetoad scanners in 20 states. The Bluetoad technology with its range of up to 200 feet picks up signals from passing Bluetooth devices which have become nearly ubiquitous in mobile devices.
The beauty of Bluetooth scanners is that they can precisely identify both the roadway and speed, making them ideally suited to creating flow data. The downside, of course, as with all sensor-based sources, is the high cost of deployment – usually borne largely by local DOTs who gain access to the data – and the not infrequent failures to which they are prone. Of course, all of these solutions are only really able to act as proxies for identifying incidents as they can only identify the results and not the causes of backups. That is where cameras and observers and journalistic data from companies such as Clear Channel, Westwood One and Navteq’s Traffic.com come into the picture.
Two years ago this analyst was a strong believer in the power that video could bring to the traffic data reporting and interpretation game. When I met the team at TrafficLand I came to believe that I had found the ultimate solution for the driving public: show people what the traffic disturbance is rather than tell them. TrafficLand had – and has – a near monopoly on DOT traffic camera installations, but its real value add is managing those images on the back end. TrafficLand not only captures most of the data but it also serves it up to handheld devices and Websites and, soon, to automotive head units.
Alas, a lot can change in two years. Cameras do play an important role in traffic reporting and interpretation, but the cameras that are likely to make a difference are not the ones mounted along highways. Front-facing mobile phone cameras are the new frontier waiting for a clever entrepreneur.
More than one industry executive has talked to me about the potential power of a network of camera probes transmitting real-time traffic camera information from the road. The user interface is a potential issue as is the required bandwidth, but what is a market changing proposition without a few challenges?
There is more than one way to make such a network come to pass, these executives suggest, including everything from a dedicated dashboard camera to a smartphone-mounted device to a forward-facing camera on a PND or even the use of existing on-board cameras. Solutions already exist. Navigon has shown augmented reality navigation solutions using forward-facing cameras and Imaginyze has a lane-departure warning app based on a similar device.
There is even a company, Apollo Video Technology, with an iPhone app to allow transit officials to view live video feeds from buses, trains, police cars and transit vehicles. Even the execs working on the Next Generation 911 solution for the U.S. are looking for ways to integrate video and text reporting of incident information from smartphones or other devices.
It shouldn't be too long before a crowd-sourced traffic solution is introduced for smartphones that allows for the automatic uploading of photos and video stills from a dashboard perspective of traffic conditions under predetermined circumstances. To make such a crowd-sourced solution effective requires a sufficiently large and connected network of users and an automated application.
In fact, it is almost shocking that neither TomTom nor Nokia have taken the leap into crowd-sourced traffic video feeds. Or is it?
While I was a big fan of integrating traffic video feeds into navigation solutions two years ago, with today's emphasis on mitigating distracted driving the idea has lost significant traction. In fact, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is on a personal jihad to ban even voice calls while driving. Video is important and can be powerful, but the time is not right and the concepts currently in the oven - including Visteon's TrafficLand app - need more time to reach maturity.
What is available today, however, is crowd-sourced traffic data from Inrix via its iPhone app (and soon on Android). The app-based Inrix system is the most complete solution, designed around one-touch incident reporting along with the ability to validate the entries of nearby drivers as well as to share the resulting data with local departments of transportation. Aha Mobile has been combining its own crowd sourced inputs with Inrix flow and Clear Channel incident data since late 2009.
In fact, Inrix's approach stands as a model for future crowd-sourced traffic solutions with its tools for ranking participants and identifying "trusted sources" and the integration with local traffic authorities. Since June, 47 of 50 state DOTs in the U.S. have adopted Inrix's agency model for sharing this user-generated data, which the DOTs are able to view on the large screens in their traffic operations centers and then check by dispatching their own responders.
Inrix says it is processing these crowd-sourced traffic feeds in real time thereby revolutionizing traffic reporting. In this way, Inrix is distancing itself from the existing competition through the integration of an entirely new source of data and a closed loop approach. The challenge for Inrix, though, is the limited size of its probe network, based on users of the downloadable iPhone app. To have an impact Inrix, mainly seen as a white box supplier to the industry, will need a little help from its industry friends.
Crowd-sourced traffic information has become the new standard and Inrix is setting the bar. Waze may claim to have the largest user population worldwide, but the company has chosen not to integrate other corroborating traffic information sources. Fusion of multiple types of data sources is a critical foundation for using crowd-sourced data, along with building validation processes. Inrix has the largest North American population of users and has recently rolled out its apps in
Europe. It is collaborating with ClearChannel in North America and other incident providers internationally for journalistic data.
Crowd-sourcing of traffic data is nothing new. Crowd-sourcing by mobile phone users has been around for decades. It is only recently, though, that smartphone apps have enabled the automation of the process and, now, with Inrix's system, the integration of crowd-sourced data into local DOT traffic feeds - although Inrix traffic app users get the data right away, including inputs from nearby drivers.
What is curious is that Inrix, while not the first to market with crowd-sourced traffic, is the first to take it to a level where it is integrated with official traffic feeds. While the crowd inputs are validated or rejected by other users on the network, the local DOT is also involved in the validation process. The open line of communication with local DOTs also means that real time street closings and openings can be transmitted along with incident validation.
Inrix is not alone. TeleNav has a crowd-sourcing function for its app and TrafficTalk has been testing a crowd-sourced offering. Harman's Aha Mobile and competing mobile platforms will no doubt seek to bring their own offerings to market as well.
Looking at the Inrix model, one has to wonder why TomTom, OnStar, ATX, Google, Nokia, RIM, TCS or TeleNav haven't moved in the same direction. OnStar has its good Samaritan function for reporting accidents, but there is no provision for instantly integrating an OnStar user-reported accident on the in-vehicle navigation/traffic display - let alone sharing it with public authorities in real-time. The same is true for ATX.
The automotive environment is ripe for crowd-sourced applications, which already include the reporting of speed traps (Trapster). The world of thumbs up/thumbs down, check-ins and trusted providers of reviews/data is rapidly proliferating on mobile devices and migrating into embedded automotive solutions. It is fitting that traffic information lead this migration since this form of data is of the highest relevance to drivers and rapidly changing. The power of crowd-sourcing of traffic data has the dual effect of creating a new source of incident data along with its own validation process.
One of the greatest challenges to creating reliable traffic information systems is validating journalistic data inputs. The crowd is able to view live traffic data, create new data and validate that data. The next step is to open the taps to other data types from parking and gas pricing to weather and event information. Eventually, crowd-sourced video will work its way into the mix as well - and probably sooner than anyone expects.
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