Where are Nav Systems Headed?

PHOTO BY killrbeez on Flickr - click to accessGPS & Navigation Systems are technologies that fascinate me – and now, with the capability of hooking them onto the cellular network I think it’s only going to get more and more interesting.

Traffic Flow / Patterns
First off, adding cellular to the mix starts to create the prospect of two-way communication. Up until now GPS has largely been a fixed base of information, from a specific moment in time, on a DVD in your car or a flash drive in the unit itself. The problem with this of course is that route problems, construction & traffic etc couldn’t be factored in. Errors were a problem too – I’ve seen some whacky stuff spit out by route generating systems but the problem is there was no easy way to let the manufacturer know. Between that and the relatively small penetration in the market getting the bugs out of the system was pretty difficult.

I think this is why many of the systems like Google Maps & MapQuest exist – it allows them to have a much broader user-base push through a huge volume of route requests and allows two-way feedback for errors. I’ve sent Google Maps a few over the years each of which has been resolved surprisingly fast.

But now, with two way communication it becomes possible to actually start to use data from GPS enabled cars to create real-time traffic information.

Imagine that as you drive along your car is uploading stats on speed and the road your on to a central server, it’s also monitoring how Joe, a guy you don’t know, is fairing up ahead, further down the route it has suggested for you.

Suddenly Joe’s speed changes dramatically and he begins moving very slowly. The system checks with the regular traffic flows for that time of year and that weather. It can also look at information it is receiving from other cars on the same road. It can see that a few hundred metres down the road traffic is moving as fast, or faster than normal and understand that something is wrong somewhere in that area of the road between Joe & the other vehicle. (It will probably go one step forward and the systems will be rigged to the sensors within the car for the airbags. If the airbags in a car get tripped it can alert authorities as well as update the nav system servers that there is a crash).

This is where the real potential starts to kick in. Based on it’s knowledge of the traffic ahead of you it could now dynamically reroute your vehicle by polling vehicles moving on parallel routes and choosing the fastest route. This though brings us to an interesting challenge that I can’t wait to see how it gets solved (or is being solved).

Load Balancing
Take the situation I outlined above but multiply it by thousands. The reality is that over time most, if not all, cars will have some kind of GPS Navigation System. So what happens when these systems all start to react to travel troubles up ahead?

As they scan the possible alternates those routes should all generally be moving at or around normal speeds, oblivious to the accident because it has literally only just happened within the past few seconds. If all of the nav systems see the highest speed route they’re going to push all of the traffic seeking alternate routes in the direction of that road, causing a deluge of traffic which will cause another traffic jam – and probably making the problem worse.

People far smarter than me are going to have to come up with a method to ensure that not only are systems monitoring what is happening at the time but also looking ahead to see what kind of traffic is coming down the pipe. Working backwards from the accident it will need to start redirecting vehicles and balancing them out across all of the available alternate routes – up close it will be minor adjustments, exit & get back on the highway at the next exit and routes could get more drastically altered the further back people are.

Predicting Traffic
Above I’ve covered the notion of reactive navigation – i.e. something happens and the system reacts. Another area I’ve seen some blips of news about (and what sent me off down this path) is the area of predicting traffic. There are already companies like Inrix popping up that do predictive traffic modeling. What they do is collect all of the traffic data that is pouring in from these systems, the traffic flow monitors managed by the government etc. and then they can begin to understand how traffic reacts to specific events happening.

For example a baseball game lets out – in some cities this means 40,000+ people exiting from one specific building, many of them via cars. A predictive system models this and over time can build a pretty confident prediction about what will happen when the game ends. Now imagine you’re driving along, listening to the game on your favorite AM Radio station – in the background the predictive system is also “watching” the game, through News feeds etc. as the game ends it kicks into gear and begins to adjust your route to ensure you don’t get caught in the snarled mess that is about to emerge on the freeway surrounding the stadium.

So this rebalancing/rerouting brings up a few interesting ideas – Not the least of which is who gets priority. As the system starts balancing out traffic there may be some routes that are better then others. Perhaps there’s a business model in the quality of the traffic information and solutions you receive. Imagine taking this system and applying a freemium style model to it. Basic GPS systems will give you point A to Point B – with basic traffic information, no automated rerouting though. The next tier automatically reroutes you on a distance based model or only adjusts your route within a certain proximity of the issue ahead of you. Finally, the premium tier, not just handles your rerouting but also routes on roads that the system deliberately balances with a lighter load in the case of an issue.

I imagine too that this kind of data would be extremely valuable to municipalities when budgeting for road repairs and maintenance as well as doing traffic flow studies. If the same spots get jammed up everyday regardless of conditions they’ll know they’ve got a flow problem and can work to fix it.

In the End…
I think we’re getting a lot closer to this than many, even I, realize. I expect that most, if not all the points I raised here are in development or even being tested. I hope much of this plays out – I think it’ll be really neat to see in action.