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After Computers Solve Our Traffic Problems, Could Improved Relationships Be Far Behind?

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For now, however, always try to grab the driver's seat if you anticipate lengthy delays in the car.

 

Editor's Note: I'm off this week, but I pulled this column from the 2007 archives of Showcase magazine because I wanted readers to consider whether or not we have made any progress in the past four years in automating traffic management and transportation. Or are we still sitting in traffic jams for hours and wasting gas as we have for years? Feel free to post your comments in the MC Forums if you have any thoughts on the subject or examples of changing times. Transportation system programmers, please step forward.

 

Sometimes I think writing is all about getting someone to listen. People like email because they can say what they want to, and no one is going to interrupt them. Have you ever realized that when you're driving and you have a passenger, you can start to behave as though you're on a soapbox with an audience? Or is it just me?

 

I must confess, people literally lunge from the car after I stop and put it in park. They've been a captive audience in an implied contractual arrangement: I'll use my car and burn my gas to drive you around in exchange for your sitting there and listening to me for, say, an hour.

 

Yes, I miss turnoffs on the highway because I get so wrapped in what I'm saying. That smacks of incompetence, and suddenly the contract has been violated. The passenger gets to say, "Honey, honey, honey—honey! You just missed the turnoff."

 

"No, I didn't. I'm taking the other way around."

 

See, here is why people like dogs. They don't challenge you, and they don't talk back. That is almost the same thing as listening. "Rover, I am going to confess something to you now. We just missed the turnoff, and we're going to be a little late to your appointment at the vet." Rover smiles and pants and doesn't care because the car ride is extended just that much longer. The difference between Rover and your other passengers is that his sitting there in silence doesn't mean he's mad at you. And he's not going to storm out of the car, slamming the door as he leaves.

 

If you ever have had people flee the car after a ride with you, it's really not because of your personality or your driving. It's actually the traffic, congestion, and distractions that travelers face today on the road. People don't flee your presence while you're sitting in your living room talking sports, do they? When you have your legs wrapped around a bar stool spouting off about the "administration," people don't quickly pay their tabs and walk out, do they? Of course not!

 

When driving, the problem is that you're moving down the highway on an overcrowded road at speeds that can easily kill everyone in the vehicle, and it's putting people on edge. And do you really think it's likely to get any better out there? There are going to be more autos, more trucks, more people, and virtually the same roadway infrastructure. Every time you head off to work, would you like to sit in traffic equivalent to the congestion you experience leaving a football stadium? Oh, you do that already?

 

It's not just the roads that are getting increasingly congested. It's the skies too. The number of airline passengers is expected to double in less than 15 years. Could it be that we need to manage what we have a little better than we do today? Can we really afford to waste 9 billion gallons of gasoline annually sitting in traffic? Do we need to waste time standing on some dangerous street corner waiting for a bus that is late, only to have three show up at once? Obviously, we need to do better.

 

"Transportation researchers and strategists at IBM are concerned that the cure for transportation problems is not building more roads or adding flights," says Marty Salfen, general manager of global travel and transportation at IBM (as of 2007). Salfen headed a group that believed that emerging technologies, especially in communications, will make travel safer, more streamlined, and able to accommodate ever-increasing growth demands.

 

His group was working on several innovations that promise to make everyone inside your car safer, more comfortable, and, generally, happier, while easing overall travel and transportation woes. You've heard of collaborative computing. Well, the future holds what is being called "collaborative driving." Cars of the future will be able to exchange information with each other and with the highway infrastructure, allowing them to behave as if they had human reflexes. They will take corrective action where appropriate and provide critical feedback to their drivers ("Turn, you idiot, turn now!"). Drivers will be able to converse with their cars (it's as yet unclear whether the cars will be permitted to talk back). Voice recognition systems will allow drivers to review and respond to emails, get directions, avoid accidents (hopefully), avoid traffic through GPS systems, control temperatures inside the vehicle, and many other activities all by voice command: "Computer, play Willie Nelson!" (Forget about calling home; you're on the road again!)

 

Let's say you're on your way to the airport to pick up your spouse and the plane is delayed. You automatically get an email or text message that says it's OK to stop by the golf shop on your way to the airport because the flight is 20 minutes behind schedule, and there is plenty of time to check out that new set of titanium clubs. Kiosk messages might even tell you—before you have waited until the last baggage carousel is empty—that her luggage has been re-routed to Atlanta—by mistake—but it's on its way back.

 

Traffic will be managed by intelligent traffic systems that will make on-the-spot adjustments to traffic lights in order to ease congestion and clear paths for emergency vehicles. GPS information will give motorists the routes to avoid during peak hours while driving or trying to park. RFID tags and radio waves, along with other vehicle sensors, will monitor traffic flow and assess toll-road fees.

 

The city of Stockholm, Sweden, for instance, has reduced traffic by nearly 25 percent, raised traffic speeds, reduced emissions more than 8 percent, and even boosted inner-city retail business by implementing a high-tech toll system in which drivers are assessed varying fees for driving during peak hours (see Stockholm Traffic System).

 

In essence, you will have more information about what's going on with trains, planes, and automobiles, and you can plan ahead better so you aren't wasting your time driving around with someone who just isn't listening.

Chris Smith

Chris Smith was the Senior News Editor at MC Press Online from 2007 to 2012 and was responsible for the news content on the company's Web site. Chris has been writing about the IBM midrange industry since 1992 when he signed on with Duke Communications as West Coast Editor of News 3X/400. With a bachelor's from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in English and minored in Journalism, and a master's in Journalism from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Chris later studied computer programming and AS/400 operations at Long Beach City College. An award-winning writer with two Maggie Awards, four business books, and a collection of poetry to his credit, Chris began his newspaper career as a reporter in northern California, later worked as night city editor for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and went on to edit a national cable television trade magazine. He was Communications Manager for McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Long Beach, Calif., before it merged with Boeing, and oversaw implementation of the company's first IBM desktop publishing system there. An editor for MC Press Online since 2007, Chris has authored some 300 articles on a broad range of topics surrounding the IBM midrange platform that have appeared in the company's eight industry-leading newsletters. He can be reached at chriswriting@cs.com.

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