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Traffic wars

Traffic wars

At last week's Intelligent Transport Systems show, I saw a lot of efforts in addressing traffic congestion. XM Satellite Radio had a large booth; it offers a traffic-information channel that feeds into navigation systems, such as Garmin's GPS devices. But two companies that you've most likely never heard of announced a partnership that promises to make a huge impact on what kind of traffic information you get in your car. One of the companies, Telcontar, makes the servers that deliver maps for such clients as Google, Yahoo, and Ask Jeeves. Telcontar can also serve maps via wireless devices such as cell phones and PDAs. The second company, Inrix, is a Microsoft spin-off that gathers traffic information. Beyond aggregating real-time traffic information from local road authorities, Inrix is working on using location data from GPS devices and cell phones to get information about areas that don't have road sensors. The company also banks a lot on traffic prediction, looking at historic patterns to determine if a particular road is likely to be congested at a particular time.

I believe that traffic information and routing will be the killer app for navigation devices. Currently, you need a nav system only if you go to unfamiliar places--the majority of driving is done during a daily commute, where a nav system isn't needed. Add traffic information to it, and suddenly the nav system is useful at all times. Current nav systems are hard drive or DVD based. Telcontar wants to push wireless systems. I have seen cell phones with a navigation app, but the screen is small, so it tends to be good for routing information only, telling you when to take the next turn. A wireless navigation device would be interesting because it wouldn't need much storage if it could download maps dynamically, depending on where you are headed. Storage is one of the components that keeps the price of navigation devices high. But when you leave a wireless-coverage area, you won't get maps updated and could be left high and dry. Since traffic information is currently limited to freeways, which do tend to have wireless coverage, any wireless navigation device would probably be useful only in urban areas.