Review: Trafficguage live traffic map

Through the SV100 I was given an interesting product called the Trafficgauge to review. It’s a small thick-PDA sized live map of the highways of your area, with indicators as to where there are traffic slowdowns. They cover about a half dozen cities.

What interested me about the product was its user interface. It doesn’t have one. There’s a button on it which does initial start (which you press only once when you get the item) and which can turn on a backlight and one very minor feature if you hold it down that I doubt any of the owners of the box even know about.

It’s always on, receiving traffic data presumably from some broadcast sideband, since it works indoors and in cars all around the bay area. By having no user interface, you can almost think of it as something like a smart map rather than a computer. I’m trying to figure out if it’s too simple or just right. When I first proposed in the early 90s that my cell company, since it knows where I am, should phone me if it sees me driving in to heavy traffic, I’ve wanted this sort of service to be aware of my location, and not bother me with data about traffic problems I am unlikely to care about. Radio traffic reports spend most of their time on stuff you don’t need to know either. As GPS chips drop in price (which they are) this box could know where you are but I am not sure it could do much with it other than show you. The indicators are not a bitmap, it’s a custom made LCD with bars for each section of highway which can be on or blinking.

(It also has icons to tell you what sporting events are taking place that day. This part is not well designed, first because I am not going to know what time the events are — could be day or night game — and the icons are in the corner, rather than in the approximate locations of the stadia (which admittedly is a challege as the stadia are all close together.)

It didn’t come with a dashboard mount, so it is a bit distracting to pick it up and look at, but not tremendously so.

On the other hand, the pricing to me, with a monthly fee, is not attractive. The data bandwidth is not so expensive as to demand this, it is largely a marketing decision. $80 plus $7/month seems a tad high. Mind you the eqivalent cell phone services also will get you coming and going. (Somehow I don’t know if the marketing departments would use “We get you coming and going” as a slogan, though it’s a good one!)

Which brings me to an idea of my own in this space, much simpler and cheaper. Namely a tiny radio (or feature in in-car radios) that constantly listens to the station that does traffic every 10 minutes — there’s one or more in every town. The box would know the little tune they always play with traffic reports, so when you pushed the button on it, it would play the latest traffic report. If it could not find the tune, it would just play from the approximate time the report comes with a button to hold down for fast forward or rewind. The standalone box would just retransmit the signal (usually from AM) onto an FM channel. Such a box could be cheap, and need no service fee. Of course the traffic station may not like it since when it works well, you would not hear their ads. And of course, most of the report is about highways you don’t care about.

For people with a computer or full blown PDA, of course, there are some alternatives. And indeed, the other downside of a dedicated box like this is that over time it really makes more sense to have it all in your PDA, not in independent boxes.

At a full browser, [SigAlert]http://www.sigalert.com/map.asp?Region=Bay+Area gives a much more detailed map, with popups on all the incidents and links to full CHP traffic reports. The CHP website itself gives a text summary of all police reports, it’s the same thing the radio stations use, and it can be fetched quickly on a simple browser.

recorded traffic reports have been around for years

For at least a dozen years, in Europe, all but the cheapest
car radios have a button which when pressed plays recordings
from the last 4 or so traffic reports. So, when getting into
your car, no problem if you have just missed the latest traffic
report: just push the button and it comes out of the RAM. (One
can hear a loss of sound quality due, I guess, to compression,
but this is no problem for speech.)

no need for a tune

At least in Europe, there's no need for a tune.
Presumably, some meta-information is transmited
(perhaps like videotext transmitted along with a
television signal) which indicates that a traffic
report is coming. One can tell the radio to
interrupt the CD with the traffic broadcast when
one comes in.

That's cool

Though they don't do it here. As I noted, they might be afraid you would not listen to the commercials. I expect they get a fair number of people tuning in a minute or so before the traffic who hear a commercial, and they like it.

Traffic over Radio RDS

So I work for a radio company here in the US and we have implemented the RDS system. This is data that is transmitted embedded into the FM radio signal. It has an electronic flag that says "I am broadcasting a traffic report" - some RDS capable radios have a traffic button that you push and it will take you to a station broadcasting traffic reports.

We have also enabled TMC - a European standard for broadcasting real-time traffic incidents using RDS. There are TMC-capable navigation systems out there from Audiovox, Garmin, etc that show you the traffic incidents as icons on the map.

Part of the standard is speed, flow and re-routing information and that is what we are working to get in there now. There are many different layers to making it work. There are companies that own the maps that have to be licensed; other companies own the location-code "grid" that overlays the traffic information onto the map; other companies own topography information.

Brian

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His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
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