Traffic jams? That's so 20th century.

Technology is barreling through with lights blazing and sirens blaring to rescue motorists stranded in traffic.

By 2008, drivers should be able to steer around tie-ups with a personalized virtual traffic reporter, giving directions to the clearest roads from the passenger seat. Some time beyond that, people won't even steer, brake, or accelerate as they're swept along the clearest roads to work.

That's the vision of the Intelligent Transportation Society, which had its annual meeting here in Boston earlier this month.

Many parts of this technology are already here. What isn't should flood into the most congested cities by the end of the year.

So far the global positioning satellite navigation systems offered in many upscale cars are helpful mostly to traveling salespeople, travelers renting cars in strange cities, and people who otherwise don't know where they're going. They're nearly useless most of the time.

Moving from novelty to necessity depends on a convergence of technologies known as ITS, or Intelligent Transportation Systems. Today, smart roads use signs and lane markers to direct drivers around delays or into reversible commuter lanes. Systems in many cities allow motorists to call for traffic reports on specific roads from their cellphones. Others use cameras along roads to distribute pictures via the Internet or television traffic reports.

The goal is to build a giant database of real-time congestion on virtually every road in the US. And then send that data to cars in a format that doesn't distract drivers.

The problem so far is that few of the systems talk to each other.

Different cities monitor traffic speed and density using electronic roadway sensors, video cameras, or simply by extrapolating data from how many people are talking on local cellphone networks. Many cities feed this information into computers that can adjust the timing of traffic lights, for instance, and display maps on the Internet.

Others simply use the data to run videotapes of road congestion on evening newscasts, or leave human operators to interpret it and control traffic patterns. Even the electronic maps used in GPS systems and on the Internet don't match.

It's an open secret, obscured by optimistic business bluster. But, behind the scenes, the companies are all trying to link into one seamless traffic-information network. It's nothing short of merging the signal network of the industrial age - the interstate highway system - with the defining network of the Information Age, says Gerald Conover, manager of product and technology at Ford Motor Company.

Nevertheless, it's happening - slowly. The first systems that integrate traffic data on in-car GPS screens should appear in 18 months, says John Sickler, a project manager at Iteris, which builds a system to collect traffic data.

That should make everyone's commute less onerous.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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