Cell Phones: A New Commuter Tool?

A new study is aimed at using cell phones to acquire better data on traffic patterns. The hope is that handheld devices can become an effective tool to navigate the commute to work.


Wireless phones may be able to help commuters across the country who search for traffic reports on the radio, online, and on TV. A new study is using cell phones to get better traffic data.

Cyrus Farivar reports.

CYRUS FARIVAR: This study is trying to figure out how your cell phone might be able to improve everyone's commute. Late last week the University of California Berkley and Nokia study was held on this stretch of Interstate 880, about 30 miles southeast of San Francisco. The goal of the experiment was to see if GPS-enabled cell phones could improve the way traffic data is collected.

Today, traffic speed is measured with censors embedded into the highway in many parts of California. But those are expensive to install and aren't available in most places.

As satellite-based GPS becomes more ubiquitous in cell phones, the idea is that by figuring out the position and speed of a person's cell phone as it travels in a moving car, traffic data could be made available faster, cheaper, and in areas where it's hard to measure, like on rural roads or city streets, for example.

Dan Work is a civil engineering Berkeley PhD student who is working on this project.

Mr. DAN WORK (Student): Right now GPS is not available in all phones, but Nokia - in the next couple years - will deploy a GPS in every phone that they sell. And I mean, you can think of it basically as trying to find a phone without a camera on it now. It's virtually impossible. And in a couple of years the same thing will be true with the GPS chips.

FARIVAR: If the experiment proves successful, it may help to alleviate some of the extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel that is burned per year due to traffic congestion.

For NPR News, I'm Cyrus Farivar.

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