TRANSPORTATION:

Can computers save you from gridlock? Companies struggle with a $100B question

As cities around the world search for safer and more efficient ways to move people around, a number of companies are branching out from their traditional businesses to usher in a new era of mobility.

Xerox Corp. has arguably taken the lead in this new frontier. Looking to leave behind its reputation as solely a paper and printing service, the company has launched into the development of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) since acquiring Affiliated Computer Services in 2010.

Drawing on expertise from the copy industry, Xerox now offers a range of transportation-related services to help reduce congestion and boost safety using data analytics, control systems, sensing and imaging.

"Really it's about moving and transporting people in the most effective way. The most cost-effective way and environmentally effective way are both facets of that," said Ken Mihalyov, chief innovation officer for transportation, central and local government at Xerox.

This week, Xerox and a host of other companies are featuring their technologies at the 19th ITS World Congress in Vienna.

German Federal Minister for Transport Peter Ramsauer said in a statement that ITS is an essential part of his country's infrastructure and the "most important way" to expand the capacity of current roadways.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the amount of money lost in wasted fuel and productivity due to congestion hit $100 billion in 2010, or more than $750 for every traveler in the United States. The amount of wasted time reached 4.8 billion hours, or 34 hours per traveler.

License plate recognition is one way Xerox is addressing the congestion issue. The technology allows governments to collect tolls remotely so traffic doesn't have to slow down. The city of Los Angeles is launching this technology next month on sections of Interstate 110.

Are traffic cops obsolete?

Xerox is also working on various ways to better enforce high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which are designed to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Researchers are developing video technology that can accurately identify how many occupants are in a vehicle using automated image processing techniques.

The same technology would allow cities to let single drivers enter the carpool lane if they agree to pay a toll. City managers could then raise or lower the toll price, theoretically by the minute, in order to control congestion.

HOV lanes are currently enforced by police officers patrolling vehicles from the side of the road, essentially trying to peer into vehicles. "It's a difficult task, and it's not very effective," said Peter Paul, principal scientist at Xerox, speaking from the ITS World Congress. "Statistics have shown it's really less than 10 percent enforcement."

"To really have an effective system, you need a way of enforcing the rules, collecting the tolls, etc., and that's where our technology comes in," he said.

As the threat of climate change becomes more acute, finding ways to reduce emissions and making sure those methods actually work is likely to become increasingly valuable.

Parking is another area ripe for ITS solutions. The slow speeds, circling and distracted driving caused by the search for parking spaces make up an estimated 30 percent of urban congestion. Some of Xerox's technologies help drivers find and reserve spaces or can alter parking meter pricing so that city managers can control the flow of traffic on their streets by raising or lowering fees in certain areas.

Could you use a 'traffic light assistant'?

In another of its projects, Xerox uses fare collection data to show whether a city's public transit routes are running effectively, are overcrowded or are hardly being used at all. The company uses heat maps to visualize some of its results to help decisionmakers optimize their systems.

In Vienna, some car companies are also showcasing intelligent transportation technologies that go well beyond the manufacturing line.

The BMW Group, for instance, highlighted its "Mobility Assistant" iPhone app that offers commuters quick and cost-effective transportation routes, whether traveling by car, public transport or some combination of the two.

"The Mobility Assistant is an initial step towards the reality of actual intermodal traffic use. The objective is to ensure mobility over a range of different modes of transport. This is empowering the BMW Group to support mobility sustainably and tailored to individual needs," said Martin Hauschild, head of traffic technology and traffic management at the BMW Group.

BMW is also working on adaptive navigation and strategic planning programs, a "traffic light assistant" program that allows cars to communicate with lights, and two parking services that allow drivers to find spaces more quickly, among other mobility services.

But technologies that enable cooperative driving, in which cars can communicate with each other and the surrounding infrastructure, are perhaps the most exciting. Using wireless communication technology and warming systems, vehicles can exchange information about their speed and position, making driving safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

For instance, flashing lights on the dashboard could tell the driver to slow down if a vehicle ahead suddenly slammed on the brakes. The car could even brake automatically if there were suddenly an obstacle in the vehicle's path.

According to the Department of Transportation, vehicle-to-vehicle communication can help avoid 80 percent of crash scenarios. In those cases, it would also help avoid the related traffic delays.

Europe, Canada, Japan and Korea are also on board with this new technology. The DOT and European Union have already developed a common safety message so American and European vehicles can understand each other.

"You think we're connected today with all these cool smartphones and iPhones," said Xerox's Paul, "but we're just scratching the surface."