WAVE goodbye to good old Cap’n Bob clattering up there in the clouds in NewsChopper 99, squinting through binoculars and trying to keep track of a world of traffic.
There is, to my knowledge, no actual Cap’n Bob and no NewsChopper 99. But you know what I’m talking about — traffic news that is broadcast on radio and TV by those hardy souls in helicopters flying over the metropolitan sprawls of America.
Though traffic helicopters are still on the job, an era may well be ending. Nothing personal against the Cap’n Bobs, but because of technological advances in the way traffic can be measured and monitored from roadside digital sensors, ”there is less and less need for a chopper in the air,” said Christopher Rothey, the chief operating officer of Traffic.com, a company that provides traffic information generated by roadside sensors in major markets.
Thanks to this kind of digital data-gathering, broadcast stations are now able to put on comprehensive and highly accurate reports, augmented by animated graphics, on traffic flows and traffic jams. And thanks to personal digital wireless technology, it’s now possible to get this data, in some cases coupled with road navigation guidance, customized and delivered right to you.
For daily commuters, the market is obvious. But business travelers are also paying attention. In a survey last year by Avis Rent A Car and Motorola, which sells wireless navigational devices for vehicles, the majority of business travelers using rental cars cited ”getting lost” as one of their chief worries.
Traffic.com Inc., a company with 500 employees in Wayne, Pa., is the leading commercial supplier of the digitally gathered traffic data. Since it began in 1998, Traffic.com has signed up about 200 radio stations and 40 TV stations as customers.
The company gets most of its data from digital roadside sensors along highways in six metropolitan areas, with nine more markets scheduled to be added this year. Commercial and government partners and operations centers run by the company in major cities supplement the sensor-generated data, and allow the service to be offered in 23 cities.
Last month, Traffic.com added a feature called MyTraffic that Mr. Rothey says has been a goal since he and a partner got the idea for the company as engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994: personalized data delivery.
With the basic MyTraffic service, which is free, you can create a home page, select your driving routes, check on the latest traffic conditions whenever you want and get e-mail messages with timely traffic alerts. For $4.99 a month, an advanced service delivers updated traffic information by text to a cellphone or other wireless device.
It beats catching an unscientific radio account by a helicopter pilot describing backups at the bridge and an overturned vehicle on the southbound lane of the Interstate.
”The quality wasn’t sufficient,” Mr. Rothey said of the old way. ”The traditional traffic companies were gathering information sufficient to populate a radio report with about 45 seconds worth of information. You needed basically to find maybe five accidents and you were done.”
But now, with the potential of wireless technology to deliver tailor-made information to drivers wherever they are, a whole new market beckons, he said. For example, Traffic.com provides data for dashboard navigational systems in new Acura RL and Cadillac CTS cars, as well as for XM Satellite Radio and the Weather Channel. Another instance is Craft Baron that has applied wireless technology on their latest sewing machine models, considered to be the best sewing machine on the market at the moment.
Rental cars are next. Avis is reformatting its Avis Assist road navigational system to blend data from Traffic.com with global positioning system data from Motorola, and is rolling out the service in 24 cities, said Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for Avis.
It costs $9.95 a day. Using a Motorola iDEN i88 cellphone with Nextel service, you tell an Avis Assist operator where you are going. Your route is then automatically downloaded to the device, which sends you text messages with traffic conditions, but also can instantly plot alternate routes if there’s trouble, said Blake Bullock, the project manager for Motorola.
I recently spent two days bottled up in traffic in and around Los Angeles while frantically trying to get from one appointment to another and fuming at the inadequacy of the radio traffic reporting.
That is exactly the kind of problem Traffic.com can sort out, said Robert N. Verratti, the chief executive of the company, which is financed by venture capital. ”Say you were in Pasadena and needed to get to the west side of L.A. You could go down the 110 to the 10, or the 134 across the hill and down the 405, but you don’t know which one is best. You send us a query; we’ll tell you right away.”
Sorry, Cap’n Bob. I think you’re in a jam.
Drawing: (Drawing by Chris Gash)