A massive wall of video screens displays real-time images from a network of cameras, while employees look at a million points of data on their own computers. It's Houston's other mission control, and they've now got a new tool to combat congestion: your Bluetooth device.
Companies such as Trapster and Google use cell phone GPS information to monitor traffic conditions, with varying results, but no one has tried snatching real-time data directly from Bluetooth devices along a network of sensors the way Houston's cutting edge TranStar traffic monitoring center is currently doing it.
Anonymous Wireless Address Matching (AWAM) takes the individual MAC address on Bluetooth-enabled systems like phones, hands-free devices, computers, and even Sony PSP Go gaming devices and tracks them as they enter a roadway equipped with a sensor.
If you've got your iPhone in your pocket and you drive along Interstate 45 leaving downtown Houston the system records a version of your MAC address.
When you cross another sensor it records you again, recognizing you as the same vehicle. It then takes your speed between the two points and averages it with everyone else passing through the same two points.
This new approach provides Houston with a cheaper, more accurate, and more detailed traffic view than other car monitoring systems such as Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) technology, which the region also uses to monitor traffic.
"[AWAM is] dirt cheap!" said David Fink, with the Texas Department of Transportation Houston District. "If our current multi-lane AVI sensors cost $75,000 on the cheap end to install, the most expensive version of the AWAM with solar power and Wi-Fi costs $8,000."
The costs get even cheaper when the sensor can be added to a normal traffic box, averaging around $1,000 a piece, or 75 times less than a cheap AVI sensor. This poteintial savings was the main impetus for creating a new system, although it provides other advantages as well.
"Unlike other sensor methods, this system is asynchronous (continually asking and receiving information," said Texas Transportation Institute Research Scientist Darryl Puckett. "Every (MAC) address detected is processed instantaneously."
They've attempted to overload the system with MAC addresses but, at 6,000-per-second, the system still works. The more data, the more accurate, and the first set of sensors rolled in West Houston and along I-45 have produced a lot of data.
"The accuracy, once we developed an algorithm that eliminated the outliers, has been consistent because the accuracy of the data is absolute," said Puckett, who says the system learns when a Starbucks or Verizon store is nearby skewing the data.
Houston TranStar says the data is also doubly secure from privacy invasion because the MAC addresses are given anonymous numbers in the system despite the fact that a MAC address on a bluetooth headset, for instance, isn't something as simple to track like an IP address.
For individuals driving through the Houston area this means they can get up-to-the-second information on travel times between two points, either via the the TranStar website on the device that, itself, is giving information to TranStar, or on transportation information signs located along major interstates that spit out detailed information like "Travel time to 1960 from Betlway 8 is 13 minutes at 4:46 pm."
While AWAM makes Houston a leader in traffic technology, the area's strong economy, sprawling layout, and crazy accidents still makes Houston a leader in needing it.
Necessity is the mother of invention and Houston's traffic is one big mother...
Photo Credit: Eschipul, Houston Transtar