Who's Calling? It's Your Traffic Report Developers at the University of California, Berkeley have created a system that uses GPS-equipped cell phones both to detect traffic jams and to alert drivers of problems in their area. The traffic-warning system may become available nationwide within a year.

Who's Calling? It's Your Traffic Report

Who's Calling? It's Your Traffic Report

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99883564/99885632" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

In the ongoing struggle to figure out where traffic is clogged before driving right into it, San Francisco Bay commuters have a new high-tech weapon on their side.

The newest and coolest traffic prediction system is based on a simple assumption: that every car has a driver, and every driver has a cell phone.

One of those drivers, and cell phone users, is Lisa Alvarez-Cohen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. As she gets into her Toyota Prius, she sets her cell phone on her dashboard and flips it on.

Alvarez-Cohen is an early adopter of a new system called the Mobile Millennium and says that, for her, the daily commute around town is less important than the weekends — when, she says, the traffic alert system becomes invaluable.

"My two sons are on traveling soccer teams. So we are often taking long trips out into all parts of California that we haven't been to before," she says.

That's when Alvarez-Cohen needs the service.

Using Cell Phones To Gather Traffic Information

Alvarez-Cohen's cell phone tells her when traffic is bottled up — right when it's starting to happen. The new system uses cell phones to both distribute and gather traffic information.

"Because of the high penetration rate of people with phones on the road, we hope to be able to gather information at a much, much larger scale than ever before," says UC-Berkeley engineering professor Alex Bayen, who heads the project.

Bayen is using everyone's cell phone as a data point. The software works by determining the location and speed of a person's cell as it passes specific GPS coordinates. The information from those thousands of data points on the roads is sent back out to the phones in the form of a traffic report. So changes in traffic are updated constantly, and you can see it online, on your small GPS screen, or you can hear a computerized voice announcing traffic conditions.

There is money to be made here. This new gizmo might eventually persuade consumers to pony up for a phone with a more costly global-positioning feature, the kind that comes with an unlimited data plan. But if you already have all of that, Bayen says this technology can be downloaded free by anyone with a GPS-equipped phone that will support the program.

Endless Possibilities

At the recent unveiling of the Mobile Millennium project, dozens of people crammed into one of the halls at UC-Berkeley to try out the new devices.

The dean of engineering, Shankar Sastry, stood back and observed the technology scrum like a proud papa. With 3 billion cell phones worldwide, he says, the applications of cell phone technology are endless.

"I think you can imagine a world where everything — you know, entertainment, news — so whatever you think of that you would be doing on a computer today, would be on a cell phone," Sastry says.

Sastry sees a future where you don't even have a desktop computer; you just walk into your office and put your memory-packed cell phone into a docking station and use it as your computer.

And one of the first applications of this unlimited potential is monitoring traffic. Project director Bayen says he got good results in a trial period with just 100 users. He estimates that to cover every section of every highway, and even most surface streets, he will need about 10,000 users in the Bay Area. If all goes well, he says, he should accumulate that many users by early spring, and he expects this traffic-warning system to be available nationwide within a year.

David Gorn reports for member station KQED.

Related NPR Stories