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Want To Avoid Red Lights? There's An App For That

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Want To Avoid Red Lights? There's An App For That

Digital Life

Want To Avoid Red Lights? There's An App For That

Want To Avoid Red Lights? There's An App For That

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There are plenty of iPhone apps to help with driving — for finding locations, directions or live traffic reports. Now, there's an app for avoiding red lights along the way. The technology company OnTime Systems helped the Air Force and Navy optimize their transportation routes. Now, they've decided to help civilian motorists with "Green Driver."

NEAL CONAN, host:

There are lots of iPhone applications, or apps, out there to deal with driving. With a few touches of the screen, we can find a new location, receive turn-by-turn directions, even get live traffic reports. But red lights seem to be an inescapable part of life. You may switch lanes, try alternate routes - somehow you always end up stuck behind a semi waiting for the light to change. Well, now there's an app for that. An Oregon-based technology company, On Time Systems, helped the Air Force and Navy to optimize their transportation routes.

Now they've decided to help the rest of us to avoid red lights with an app called Green Driver. So how do you avoid red lights now? How might you use this new app? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And if you go to the Web site, there's a link to a Green Driver demo. Again, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Matthew Ginsberg joins us now from our member station KLCC in Eugene. He's the CEO of On Time Systems. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. MATTHEW GINSBERG (CEO, On Time Systems): It's great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And take us through a typical drive with this app. How does it work?

Mr. GINSBERG: It's like any other GPS mapping app on a Smartphone. You turn it on, you say where you're going, and as you drive around it adjusts the route if need be to help you avoid red lights. If you're coming to a timed light, it tells you how long it's going to be green or red, or whatever state its in. And basically it's just designed so that in addition to getting you where you're going, it tries to get you there in as little time as possible, given the state or the length time of your route.

CONAN: And that means it must be getting some sort of a signal from the light itself.

Mr. GINSBERG: Yes. Well, the signal is actually coming from the city of Eugene. We made a deal with them that they would provide us with all the information about what the lights are up to, and that goes over to, you know, our facility, and then we use that to compute the routes and send them to the iPhone.

CONAN: And I wonder if you had to convince the city of Eugene that the early adapters here weren't going to be wheelmen for bank robbers.

Mr. GINSBERG: They've seen the "Italian Job," we've seen the "Italian Job"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GINSBERG: ...and they needless to say, they were very concerned. Right now all the communication is one way. So they talk and we listen. And if we try to talk, they don't listen, so they feel pretty safe.

CONAN: So that you can't in your car - jigger the red light to make it turn green.

Mr. GINSBERG: Not yet. We actually broached the possibility that as we get more users and we actually know where the volume of traffic is and what people are trying to do, that we would be interested, shall I say, in having some measure of control over the lights, and they listened patiently.

CONAN: Now, your company also creates software to optimize complex industrial systems for the Navy and the Air Force. Is this a derivative of that same kind of technology?

Mr. GINSBERG: I guess the right answer is: sort of. We typically look at problems whether there are many ways to solve the problem and one of them is better than the other. And the trick is to find the needle on a haystack. So if you're the Air Force and you're trying to fly a relief mission from Charleston to Port-au-Prince, there are many different routes you could take. Some of them are more fuelefficient than others, and we try and find the most fuel-efficient routing.

CONAN: And in this...

Mr. GINSBERG: If you're...

CONAN: ...if you're trying to get from your house to your office, there are lot of routes you can take, but some had more red lights that others.

Mr. GINSBERG: Exactly.

CONAN: And this would just suggest - obviously it doesn't control the car or anything.

Mr. GINSBERG: No. No, no, no. It just suggests.

CONAN: Let's see if we got some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Matthew Ginsberg of On Time Systems, which is trying out a Green Light app at in Eugene, Oregon. And how would you use such an app and how do you avoid red lights if you have a system of your own? Let's talk with Glen(ph), and Glen's in the line from Panama City.

GLEN (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call. And believe me, I appreciate the idea of some aspects of this technology, but as a professional driver I can assure you that what people are going be doing is racing from one green light to the next and not paying attention to their driving, as they are already completely occupied with telephones and watching movies and painting their nails.

CONAN: Is that of worry, Matthew?

Mr. GINSBERG: It's sort of a worry. The bottom line is that, you know, a lot of GPS apps, you use them to get places you don't how to get to, but this is different. I use it to get to work every day and I know there are three or four routes I can take. And my question is, which one of those routes is going to be best for traffic lights today? So I turn the app on, I glance at it. It draws in blue what it wants me to do. And I say, oh, I go this way today, and off I go. And it really just takes a very infrequent glance to see if something unusual has happened. And by and large, I know what's going to happen, it's just a question of do I go route A, B or C. So I don't find myself racing from light to light and paying attention to the iPhone and all that kind of stuff.

And the other thing that we found which is actually very helpful is if you're coming up to a green light, and, you know, it's a couple of blocks away and your iPhone is actually telling you, this light is going to be green for another 36 seconds, you stop racing. So instead of all of the sudden starting to race because you see the light is green and you got to get there, you actually can race less because you know it's going to be green when you show up.

GLENN: Can I say something to that, though?

CONAN: Yeah.

GLENN: Yeah, and my last comment on that - and, again, I mean, it sounds like marvelous technology if you're planning a trip to the moon and you're not worried about running into another asteroid or something. But the issue is, is that, you know, your average human being is sort of an emotional creature. And I just think that there's going to be a lot of problems. I'd be more concerned. I'd rather see people deal with the safety issue of, like, where you can avoid construction sites.

The human element, the whole purpose of having a human driver is because you're the captain of the vehicle, not a little electronic device that's not going to end up in the hospital like you will when you, you know, run an intersection. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Okay. And that cheerful advice from Glenn.

Matthew Ginsberg, how is this working out in practice? How long has it been up in Eugene? How many people are using it?

Mr. GINSBERG: So right now, so the official, as it were, beta starts at the beginning of May, and if people want to sign up for that, they go to the Web site that you linked to and they can sign up. We've been using it internally for maybe a month or two. I stayed out of the hospital.

CONAN: So far.

Mr. GINSBERG: So far. And it feels to me, driving around, as if there really is no impact at all on, you know, how safe I am, how careful I am, how much attention I'm paying to the road. I'm doing, you know, I'm doing just fine.

And like I said, I think, if anything, the impact is to make me - I know when I just have no reason to rush, you know, if there's a red light and it's going to be red when I get there, you know, just cruise up. It's fine, so...

CONAN: And, again, you could see the demo at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a link to it there.

Let's go next to Jesse(ph). And Jesse's with us from Albany, California.

JESSE (Caller): Yes. Hello. Good evening. Or good day, I should say.

CONAN: Good day.

JESSE: Mm-hmm. So I guess I was listening to the prior caller and he was mentioning some of the drawbacks to the system, but I wanted to kind of touch on the idea that emergency systems such as police and fire and ambulance might really benefit from systems such as this.

CONAN: And indeed, there are sadly too many - all too many accidents that involve either police cars racing to a scene or ambulances trying to get to the hospital and trying to get through red lights.

JESSE: Right. Right.

CONAN: Matt Ginsberg?

JESSE: And...

CONAN: Are...

JESSE: ...often, you know, what I was kind of wonder - or what I was going to ask about was basically notification system for when and where the red lights are going to take place - so it's not necessarily GPS system calculating, you know, how you go around it is in, can you clarify that?

CONAN: Matthew Ginsberg, two questions. Obviously, would emergency vehicles like ambulances have access to this? Do they already? And that other part of Jesse's question?

Mr. GINSBERG: So I understood the first question. I don't think I understood the second question. As far as emergency vehicles, at least in Eugene, they already control the lights. So if a police car goes by, it will actually set the light to green for it. But one of the nice features of this technology is that as we build it out, if there is an emergency vehicle going on a particular route and we get that information from the city, we can actually route our drivers away from that. So we actually reduce all sorts of congestion. As far as...

JESSE: Wow, that's fabulous.

Mr. GINSBERG: As far as your second question about the GPS interaction, I mean, what's happening is that the information we get from the city on the lights is not GPS based. We just have this big database of all the lights and what they're currently doing and what they're going to be doing in five, and 10 and 15, 20 seconds and so on. The only thing we use the GPS for is the individual iPhones. Obviously, we need to know where the drivers are, where they're intending to go so that we can sort of couple that with the information we have about the lights and make routing recommendations to them.

CONAN: Oh, so you have to tell your iPhone in advance, I'm going on my way to the office, and then it'll engage the system.

Mr. GINSBERG: Exactly. Just like any other GPS thing. It's got to know where you're going so that it can tell you how to get there.

CONAN: All right. Jesse...

JESSE: Perfect. So that answers the question, the second question, because basically I was wondering if I'm coming to a major intersection and I want to make a left at this major intersection but I know that left-hand turn lane is going to take forever, I make a left maybe before the intersection and then a right and another left onto that major road that I was trying to make a left on in the first place. It's kind of like avoiding the light where I'm just going through stop (technical difficulty). Is that the kind of thing that a GPS would be activating?

Mr. GINSBERG: The system certainly can do that. You have to be a little bit careful not to be sort of too aggressive so when we first developed it, it loved - if you were trying to go through a light that was red, it would dump you on a right filter and have you make this illegal U-turn and then turn right on the same light and sort of cut it out in a way that was guaranteed to get you a ticket. So you want to be a little bit careful not to go overboard on that kind of stuff.

CONAN: And don't assume that it's telling you to do something legal.

Mr. GINSBERG: Nowadays, it's pretty good, but obviously, as the first caller said, you are the captain of the ship. But we do, you know, we do know that, you know, turning left on this light is very hard or this light tends to be red for a long time and all of that is folded in as we compute the most time-efficient routes to get where you're going.

JESSE: Got it, got it. Now, you've mentioned - real quick, this is the last thing I wanted to touch on was the emergency system such as ambulance and police, they come to a light that's red, somehow the light knows that they're approaching and it turns green for them. Do you know any more details about those systems because I have a bet here with a friend who says that it isn't the brights, but I kind of seem to think that it's the flashing lights that -and the bright lights that has to do with that.

CONAN: The bubbletop, what is it?

Mr. GINSBERG: My understanding, and this is just very vague and - arguably, only Eugene, is they actually transmit on a particular radio frequency, and that controls the lights. So it's nothing that you could sort of see and watch if you put your brights on, it doesn't change the light. And you could put whatever you want on the top of your car and...

CONAN: Might get it - receive it in your filling, but otherwise you're not going to be able to detect it. Jesse, thanks very much for the call.

JESSE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Matthew Ginsberg, CEO of On Time Systems, about the app that will help drivers avoid red lights, with us from KLCC in Eugene. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Cynthia(ph) on the line, Cynthia calling from Lawrence, Kansas.

CYNTHIA (Caller): Yeah, hi. Long time listener, first-time caller. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Okay.

CYNTHIA: I was wondering, I do ABA therapy, in-home care with kids with autism, and so I drive from health house to do my therapy. I was wondering do you know of how much gas this might save, because that's kind of my main concern, I think, at this point is, you know, trying to save gas mileage and stuff like that while I'm driving around town.

CONAN: Has your gas mileage changed, Matthew?

Mr. GINSBERG: You can't - it's hard to measure. I can tell you that pretty much every domain we have looked at, when you bring optimization technology to bear, you save - it's very rare that you save outside, sort of, the three to 5 percent range. So I would expect that here you're going to cut your gas consumption and your time probably by something between three and five percent.

CYNTHIA: Okay.

CONAN: And do you save time going to work everyday, Matthew?

Mr. GINSBERG: I do - not everyday. Some days, you get lucky, some you get home lucky. But by and large, it feels like I get home a little faster and I get to the office a little faster.

CONAN: All right. Cynthia...

CYNTHIA: Thank you very much for my call. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Okay. Thank you.

Mr. GINSBERG: I can tell you that one of the things we did to test this all out is we actually had a race against a local TV anchor.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. GINSBERG: I was in my wife's Prius and he was in a borrowed Jaguar, and we started at On Time Systems and we drove to, like, three points and then went back to the office. Google predicted that - you know, Google doesn't know anything this stuff. Google said it would take 39 minutes. And using Green Driver, it took me 36 minutes and it took him 47 minutes. So on that one sample, it did very well.

CONAN: And I suspect you got better mileage than he did.

Mr. GINSBERG: Probably.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's go to Kate(ph), Kate with us from Detroit.

KATE (Caller): Yes, hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good.

KATE: Yeah. I wanted to add to the mileage question. I think there are some, I don't know, geek movement out there about trying to save on gas where you drive, like, really close as much as possible. You drive at or below speed limit. And I just like driving slow like that. It's much more relaxing to me. And no one is - I drive in Detroit, in an urban situation. There's all kinds of four-way turn-type situations, we have roundabouts, which I think are cool. And, you know, this application might be, to me, kind of like the killer application. I have a cell phone, but I'm kind of techno skeptic. I don't like to talk on my cell phone. And just with respect to the guy who is a professional driver, I'm a woman and I have never painted my nails when Im driving. I think that's kind of...

CONAN: If you dont talk on your cell phone, what do you use it for?

KATE: I don't talk on my cell phone in my car.

CONAN: Oh, in your car. Okay.

KATE: Yeah. And I don't paint my nails in the car, you know? I want an application - if this would work, I think, you know, this would - I would be persuaded to by a smartphone or an iPhone or something like that.

CONAN: Hmm.

KATE: And I think it's probably well worth further study to find out if, you know, gas mileage savings are going to happen. And I would think, you know, just better driving, you know, if that could happen. We - nobody wants to get in an accident, you know? I don't - I have an older car, and I don't carry collision coverage on my car. I try to drive really carefully, and I'm a very, you know, responsible driver. So, you know, good work. And, you know, if it works out, I might end up getting...

Mr. GINSBERG: Thank you.

KATE: ...one of those expensive phones.

CONAN: There's an unsolicited endorsement from Kate. Thanks very much for the call, Kate.

KATE: Thank you so much.

Mr. GINSBERG: Call back.

CONAN: Bye, bye. And, well, speaking of that, after it debuts in Eugene, what, May 1, is it going to go other places?

Mr. GINSBERG: As quickly as we can roll it out to other places. We'd obviously like to see it everywhere. And I know that, you know, every traffic engineer in the country is probably listening to us now, so hopefully they'll all get in touch with me.

CONAN: And they can, again, go to our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's a demo of the Green Light System.

Here's an email question from Rich(ph) in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Does the Drive Green app know about congestion at red lights?

Mr. GINSBERG: So that's a very complicated question. Right now, the answer is no. As our user base grows, we obviously will get data of two kinds. First of all, we'll get sort of real-time data about where the traffic is congested, and we will fold that in. And we're also starting to get information, and we already started to look at this about how long does it actually take you to clear a particular intersection. There are some intersections that, you know, the light is red but you still go right through. There are some intersections that it's going to get you two or three cycles to get through.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GINSBERG: We'll be collecting all that information and folding it all into the traffic model, so that as we get more users, as we have more users for longer, all that stuff that we collect goes into making better routes for our users.

CONAN: So it's an adaptive system. It learns as it goes along.

Mr. GINSBERG: We learn.

CONAN: We learn, okay. It doesn't learn anything. Matthew Ginsberg, good luck with it.

Mr. GINSBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Matt Ginsberg is CEO of On Time Systems Incorporated. He joined us today from member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. And again, there's a link to the Green Driver demo on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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