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GPS + Web = Drive - Traffic

Once again, a free program on a cheap smartphone helped spare my wife and me from a little holiday traffic. Last year, we routed around some Thanksgiving-weekend congestion on the New Jersey Turnpike with help from a copy of Google Maps on a Palm device. This time around, we dodged a couple of tie-ups on Interstate 95 in Maryland.

I say "helped" because this application doesn't deserve all the credit. Each time, our first warning came from one of those overhead message signs, which was our cue to fire up Google Maps, press 0 to have it compute our location from nearby wireless transmitter-tower signals and check its display of traffic to see how bad and far along the congestion lasted. (During the second instance, we also confirmed the incident at a newspaper's Web site.) Duly informed, we took the next exit and let our car's GPS find a way back to the road beyond the traffic.

(In case you're curious, the first backup came not long after noon on Tuesday, between Aberdeen and the Susquehanna River on I-95 North; the second happened late Saturday night, when an unspecified accident closed the southbound lanes of the highway between I-695 and White Marsh.)

Without all of those ingredients, our trip could have been much worse. We might not have known when to look up traffic data (or the occupant of the passenger seat would have had to spend the trip glued to the phone's screen), or we would not have known when it would be safe to get back on the road, or we could have gotten lost in mid-detour.

But no one device combines all those functions. One that came close, the Internet-connected Dash Express, has vanished from the market since its developer elected to sell its software and service to other GPS vendors. Other standalone GPS devices, and a minority of in-car navigation units, offer limited traffic updates over extra-cost FM or satellite radio services but leave out any Internet connectivity. The smartphones that do offer Web access (not to mention the ability to route you to anybody in your address book) generally don't provide turn-by-turn navigation and come with screens too small for a solo driver to use.

I'm not sure how this gets fixed. Maybe in-car GPS receivers will be able to borrow a passenger's smartphone's Internet connection via Bluetooth; maybe HD Radio will finally gain mass-market relevance when it can relay traffic updates and other data services; maybe Dash's technology will take off once it's packaged in a mass-market brand of GPS unit; maybe future smartphones will come with bigger screens and suction-cup mounts for the windshield.

Your guess is as good as mine--so please, post it in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 29, 2008; 12:31 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , The Web  
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"maybe HD Radio will finally gain mass-market relevance when it can relay traffic updates and other data services"

Yea, right - this has already been done through other services. HD Radio is a farce!

Posted by: sidwellfriends | December 29, 2008 12:50 PM | Report abuse

So THAT'S what the backup was on Saturday. My traffic-enabled GPS did a nice job of directing us towards a traffic free US-40.

Posted by: nashpaul | December 29, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Rob - the new TeleNav Shotgun is very similar to the Dash Express in that it has the Internet connection via the wireless network. It monitors traffic along your specific route and will alert you to traffic both on-screen and via a voice prompt. It will also provide you the option of choosing an alternate route with just one click.

BTW - TeleNav GPS Navigator provides the same experience - but on cell phones/smartphones.

Posted by: marybeth-telenav | December 29, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

marybeth-telenav writes about TeleNav GPS Navigator, which is available from AT&T. Why is it not available on the iPhone which has Google Maps, and when will it be available for the iPhone. It's about the only key feature the iPhone is lacking.

Posted by: snaab4 | December 29, 2008 1:50 PM | Report abuse

My wife and I were driving to Lancaster a few weeks ago, using her VZ Navigator on her phone. There was a major accident on US 30 just a few miles east of the Susquehanna River crossing, and VZ Navigator dutifully alerted us to a backup ahead (we didn't pay attention soon enough) but VZ Navigator DID get us an alternate detour to the one that the State Troopers and local cops were directing everyone to, which was crawling at a snail's pace.

Posted by: snaab4 | December 29, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

@snaab4 - we are developing TeleNav GPS Navigator for the iPhone although I unfortunately don't have an update on a launch date yet.

Posted by: marybeth-telenav | December 29, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Hi, Rob. Before anything: thanks for the good info/columns/chats during 2008 and Happy 2009.
I rented a car in Germany more than 5 years ago and the GPS navigating device gave me verbal warning of traffic tie-ups (albeit in a really irritating English--not American--accent). And there was no internet connection involved!
Maybe a reader in Germany can provide more info on how they do it there.

Posted by: VeronaItaly | December 29, 2008 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Save money - route yourself around I-95...


Posted by: JkR- | December 29, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I've found that the MSN service on my Garmin does a great job of giving real-time traffic updates (and re-routes), plus gas prices and movie times.

Posted by: pparrydc | December 29, 2008 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"They’re turning off HD in Washington, DC"

"Well, this time it’s not an anomaly or a digital exciter glitch—at least not that we can see. For weeks now the Washington, DC market has been turning off its HD Radio signals en masse. There is no longer any station in the market on AM broadcasting in HD... The most likely culprit is licensing fees."

"CC Radio’s Format Lab gone?"
November 2008

"Really, the next round of budget cuts--out of necessity--is likely going to be HD Radio equipment and licensing renewals. It has cost broadcasters money that so far has not generated ROI. This CC Radio news above, along with the rumors that Citadel has told Engineering not to fix any broken HD transmitters on AM, may be the tip of the iceberg."

Shill for HD Radio all you want - it's imploding.

Posted by: sidwellfriends | December 29, 2008 5:16 PM | Report abuse

As far as maps and driving directions GPS is a god send. However Traffic information and delay..should be handled by the Highway Authorities.

May be some one from the US Highway System should pay a visit to Japan every now and then and find out how to regulate traffic.

Posted by: reddy531 | December 29, 2008 6:00 PM | Report abuse

re: VeronaItaly's comment about traffic info in Germany:

As usual, just as with mobile phones, the U.S. is far behind Europe.

From the TMC (Traffic Message Channel) Website;

"The Traffic Message Channel (TMC) is a specific application of the FM Radio Data System (RDS) used for broadcasting real-time traffic and weather information. Data messages are received silently and decoded by a TMC-equipped car radio or navigation system, and delivered to the driver in a variety of ways. The most common of these is a TMC-enabled navigation system that can offer dynamic route guidance - alerting the driver of a problem on the planned route and calculating an alternative route to avoid the incident."

Folks, this is all old hat in Europe. Now ask me sometime about how many fewer choices we have in automobiles in this capitalist free-market economy of ours.

Posted by: mhamner1 | December 29, 2008 11:06 PM | Report abuse

I paid for one of those GPS based services and then let it lapse.

The problem with any of them (radio, GPS, internet, XMRadio, Sirius, whatever) is that they're FAAAR from timely. What I mean is, they only know about a backup after it's become severe, which does you no good, and worse, they continue telling people about the backup long after the backup is gone. It's like they lag by 90 minutes on everything which makes them useless.

Even worse, is they neglect the 2-block 20 minute hold-up that is the bane of every commuter's existence.

So it's not the technology of reporting that's a problem, it's a problem that the traffic services refuse to spend any money on more timely data. Perhaps if they paid the cell-phone companies for data (it's available), or better yet, the cell-carriers should be required to make this data available to anyone who wants it.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | December 30, 2008 8:44 AM | Report abuse

My TomTom gets live traffic via Bluetooth to my phone's internet connection. It works great, though the traffic service coverage of downtown DC incidents is pretty weak.

Unfortunately that GPS is usually in the car we don't take for long trips, as our Prius has a built in GPS, albeit sans traffic.

Posted by: sniz15 | December 30, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like "sidwellfriends" has a case of the moondays -- or is an XM shill.

This is spam/abuse.

Posted by: bs2004 | December 30, 2008 11:47 AM | Report abuse

"Sounds like "sidwellfriends" has a case of the moondays -- or is an XM shill. This is spam/abuse."

Sounds like you work for either iBiquity, the HD Radio Alliance, or the NAB. The Media obviously has connects to these organizations, as very few negative articles are ever posted by the Media. I have no connections to SIRI/XM, or any other organizations. I am an AM and SW DX'er of 40 years, and the General Public must be informed os the slow destruction of our Public Airways by HD Radio/IBOC. Obvioulsy, you are trying to get my comments revoved, but I have aleardy received almost 50 visits from this article.

Posted by: sidwellfriends | December 30, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

An advantage of an AT&T based system is that if you are ever lost you can contact NSA and they can tell you were you're at in realtime.

Posted by: whocares666 | December 30, 2008 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Hi Rob. Happy new year from Australia.
There is now a cheap sat-nav that knows the speed limits for nearly all roads in Australia:
It can alert the driver with beeps and voice alerts if the speed limit is execeeded. I prefer to run it in SpeedAlert mode, where only the speed limit and current speed are displayed. This avoids the distraction of a naviagtion map (but the speed alert still works when the map is displayed). I reckon most people need a map less than 1% of the time but need to know the speed limit 100% of the time. This is especially the case for novice drivers who can worry less about looking out for speed limit signs and concentrate more on their driving.
A smartphone version will be released in Australia next month. It will cope with variable speed limits and traffic congestion.
More links at

Posted by: mpainesyd | January 5, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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