[By Duncan McLeod]
Traffic congestion in Gauteng and parts of Cape Town is a nightmare for motorists. Lost productivity costs the country millions of rand every day, never mind the frustration and stress it causes. Now, a solution may be at hand — thanks to technology.
Gauteng’s highway improvement project should have a dramatic impact on the flow of traffic around the province.
Meanwhile, though, the province’s motorists have to endure long delays as construction vehicles and lane closures disrupt traffic flows. And, even where construction isn’t causing congestion, there is still no avoiding snarl-ups when traffic lights are out or accidents block the highway.
Until now, most people have used traffic reports on regional radio stations to help them avoid delays. But these reports are sometimes unreliable as they depend on people on the ground reporting incidents. Also, they aren’t broadcast throughout the day.
But soon technology, in the form of real-time traffic data, will be coming to the rescue of the country’s motorists.
Imagine driving down the highway and having your cellphone, in-car navigation system or personal navigation device (PND) — the standalone GPS systems made by companies like Garmin and TomTom — warn you about a traffic obstruction ahead. Imagine the PND then routing you around the obstruction, along roads that are clear of traffic, so that you make your meeting in time. Does this sound too good to be true? It’s not. At least three companies — TomTom and vehicle tracking companies Altech Netstar and Tracker — are developing systems that will do exactly this.
Netstar sees real-time traffic data as a key growth area for its business and recently set up a joint venture company, Altech Netstar Traffic, with UK-based traffic management specialist Itis Holdings.
The company is extracting information in real time from 70 000 fleet vehicles under its management and is in discussions with one of the mobile phone operators to receive anonymous location-based data from mobile users.
It combines all the data it receives automatically with information gleaned from pilots in its vehicle recovery aircraft, from its drivers on the ground, and from traffic reports on the radio, and supplies this data to third-party service providers and mapping companies.
Netstar Traffic has developed a “location code table” of 65 000 geographic points around the country, with real-time traffic data available from each of these locations. The company covers most of the country’s major roads — the only routes not covered are the quiet suburban roads.
Real-time traffic data can be sent to users via the cellphone data network (using GPRS) or via the Radio Data System (RDS) — the same system that is used to tell your car stereo to display the name of the radio station you are listening to. Netstar Traffic is in talks with the SABC and private radio stations to use the RDS band.
The data is also supplied to companies that offer traffic information via interactive voice response systems, where a motorist calls a premium-rated number to find out what traffic is like along a particular route.
The introduction of real-time traffic data should prove a boon for PND manufacturers. Many people who buy PNDs rarely actually use them. They sit in people’s glove compartments and are taken out on rare occasions.
Netstar MD Harry Louw says these devices become a “decision support tool while you’re sitting in traffic” and so become useful “100% of the time” instead of just occasionally. This could lead to an “improvement” in sales for the manufacturers, he says.
A sales boom seems more likely!