In the Spotlight

News & Features
Traffic Tech
By John Bischoff
August 25, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4, RealAudio 3.0 28.8

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is testing a new traffic control system that's a bit more sophisticated than your average ramp meter. The Guidestar Trilogy Project uses electronic sensors, global positioning satellites, and dashboard computers to help drivers steer clear of traffic jams on Twin Cities highways. MnDOT is testing the system to work out bugs and to figure out how much people are willing to pay for it.

Web sites related to this story:

Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT):
Map of traffic speeds on Twin Cities highways

Audio: Car door slam, ding dong.

Eichhorst: When they installed this, they put in a monitor and stand. Then, in the trunk there's a mini-computer, a microprocessor. Up on the dash there is my GPS receiver. That's what I use to get the signal from the DOT.

Ken Eichhorst commutes 50 miles each day from his home in Rosemount to his job in New Brighton, and back again. After work, he gets into his trusty 1989 Nissan Sentra with broken air conditioning, cranks the windows open, and checks out the shimmering computer screen - about the size of an index card - mounted to his dashboard.
Eichhorst: What we have on the monitor is basically a map of the Twin Cities area. I do have a remote control that I use to operate this. I can zoom down in to where the lowest map will show the ramp lights. The colors designate; the green means that there isn't a delay, the yellow means there's maybe a five- to ten-minute delay, and the red is longer than that.
Metro area freeways show up as double lines. Half-mile segments change from green to yellow, orange, or red indicating whether traffic is free-flowing, or just creeping along. Icons pop up to show whether a jam is caused by an accident or road construction. Another screen displays information that could affect traffic - like a severe weather forecast, or a game ending at the Metrodome. A teardrop-shaped icon traces the location of Eichhorst's car on the map as he drives.

Eichhorst has been using the system since May, after he responded to a newspaper ad placed by MnDOT looking for volunteers to test it out.

Eichhorst: A lot of times, I'll take 280 down to 94 to go east and if that's backed up, I'll take a side street like Snelling or Cleveland. It may be four to five miles further but it may save me ten minutes.
As the metro population grows, a commute that takes 30 minutes today is expected to stretch out to 45 minutes in 2020. MnDOT has ruled out spending billions of dollars on new freeways to handle the load. So traffic planners are looking for ways to prevent jams of the future with technology that will influence drivers' behavior.
Audio: TMC scanner noise up
The Traffic Management Center (TMC) is a small, fortress-like building perched on the edge of downtown Minneapolis. Inside, walls of TV screens show 175 views of Twin Cities highways. A scanner picks up reports of accidents. Electronic sensors embedded in the roads show where traffic is heavy, and operators use that information to set ramp meter rates. During rush hour, all this information is broadcast over the radio every 10 minutes. But Gary Hallgren, who manages the Trilogy Project, says the system he's testing is a better way of getting the most pertinent information to drivers.
Hallgren: This is a lot of information in your car when you need it.
The Swedish auto maker Volvo developed the receiver and screen that MnDOT is testing in Ken Eichhorst's car. Other manufacturers are trying out similar systems in Europe and the U.S.. Hallgren says the TMC's extensive traffic monitoring system could make the Twin Cities a particularly good market for a company that wants to sell the device in its cars.
Eichhorst: The real reason we're doing the test is to find out how much people value this type of information, and how much more valuable is having this very specific speed data - as opposed to just the general information on crashes and incidents.

Audio: Truck noise up.

John Freese is a truck driver for Road Runner, a courier service in the Twin Cities. He wonders how he was ever able to do his job without the Trilogy system:
Freese: To me it's like a carpenter without a hammer. This tool's very important.
Freese says it's hard to say how much time the Trilogy system saves him because it only shows traffic problems on the freeways, and if he exits to get around a jam, the backstreets may take even longer. He thinks the main benefit of the system may be psychological.
Freese: People are not courteous anymore like they used to be. I think that's the biggest problem today is stress and not being courteous, and everybody in too big a hurry to get noplace. I hope it'd be a tool that would allow people to slow down and realize what they have in front of them, and how they can get around it without being so stressed out or pushing the limits all the time.
In addition to surveying regular commuters and commercial drivers, MnDOT is testing out the Trilogy system in ambulances, busses, and other vehicles. So far, the on-board computers seem to be working reliably, despite baking in the trunk during the summer, and freezing during the winter. But once all the bugs are worked out of the system, there's still a larger question: Would this device work if every car had one, or would it just shift traffic jams from one road to another? MnDOT's Gary Hallgren:
Hallgren: We don't give alternate route information on this device, and you don't know exactly where everyone is going. Everyone's going a different way. To have a device that tells everyone to turn left isn't the right answer.
Hallgren predicts Trilogy or a similar system will be available in cars within 5 years, and that it'll be used not only to supply traffic information, but also to give street directions, and maybe even to send out emergency calls when drivers need help.

MnDot plans to finish testing the devices by the end of the year, but trucker John Freeze says he hopes they run into a jam:

Freeze: They're gonna have a hard time getting this one from me. I got this one for a year and, hopefully they forget about it.