New gadgets help commuters outsmart traffic

Mike Lucki never leaves home without it. Usually riding in the passenger seat as he drives to work or sitting in the center console is Mr. Lucki's TrafficGauge, a 3-by-5 inch LCD rendering of Los Angeles' freeways.

Bars the size of ants blink on and off as they march up and down digital stretches of freeway to represent traffic.

"I'd feel lost without it," says Lucki, a CPA from Orange County, who uses the device to navigate his 40-mile commute to Los Angeles. "It's basically a huge time-saver and I would not step in my car without one."

With commute times likely to increase in major cities, several new traffic-monitoring devices are attempting to put more drivers in the fast lane. While commuters may think these devices will solve their traffic woes, it ultimately depends on geographic location and how much they are willing to spend.

"What we've seen is continuing growth in traffic, and a lot more people want to be armed with information as they travel," says Shawn Turner, an associate research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute in Bryan, Texas. "How a person gets the traffic information is like buying a camera: Some want the $80 point-and-shoot, while others like the more expensive digital SLR [cameras]."

TrafficGauge is the former, retailing for about $80 with a monthly subscription fee that ranges between $5 and $7. The device provides a fixed-screen image of a traffic map that is updated about every four minutes with information from state-run monitoring systems. Its power source: two AA batteries that last approximately two months.

Lucki looks at where the traffic is lining up on the device, indicated by blinking and stationary bars, and finds alternate routes that appear free and clear of slow-moving cars. TrafficGauge data is delivered to commuters via a wireless network that receives information from traffic monitoring systems on freeways.

Lucki estimates he saves about 30 hours a year using TrafficGauge. That's about a one-third of the time Americans spend commuting to work on an annual basis, according to the US Census Bureau.

But commuting times vary depending on the city, and that can ultimately determine whether someone subscribes to a traffic- monitoring service. For example, the average commute in Los Angeles is 29 minutes, compared with 17.3 minutes in Omaha, Neb.

At the same time, TrafficGauge only works in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. That means New Yorkers, who on average commute 38.3 minutes to work each day, may have to look to another product.

So far, a handful of companies have developed more sophisticated devices that rely on satellites and FM frequencies. Among the three biggest players are Magellan, TomTom, and Garmin.

Powered by a cigarette lighter adapter, these devices come equipped with GPS and enough memory to remember a favorite dining location or vacation spot.

As for navigating traffic, Magellan's Roadmate has a feature that provides alternate driving directions via a color touch screen. The most recent Roadmate model also plays MP3s, has a photo viewer, and speaks driving directions. A suction cup keeps the 5-by-4 inch device in place on the windshield. The price ranges from $600 to $800 depending on the model, and excluding subscription fees. TomTom and Garmin offer similar products, with virtually identical prices.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of these devices is that they work in almost every major city across the country. That's because, in the past five years, brands including Magellan, TomTom, and Garmin have partnered with major broadcasters to buy FM feeds that enable their devices to pick up traffic reports virtually anywhere. Coupled with technological improvements in mapping, these products are a lot more affordable than they were several years ago, says Brant Clark, a senior product planner at Magellan, the consumer brand of Thales Navigation in San Dimas, Calif.

"It's only been in the last two to three years that these devices have dropped by one-third in price," he says.

That doesn't mean they are faster in reporting traffic. Instead of using sensors in the road, Magellan, TomTom, and Garmin rely on traffic information from radio broadcast sources like CBS and Clear Channel. A company called NAVTEQ monitors the reports from broadcast outlets and retransmits the information (with digital maps) to the devices via FM frequencies. The lag time between when the information is received and when it is rebroadcast is a matter of seconds, according to Magellan.

Despite the features on these devices, some still prefer a simpler version.

That was Ryan Peterson's motivation when he invented TrafficGauge nearly five years ago. At the time, the software engineer was designing pacemakers and enduring a 90-minute drive to work in the Seattle area.

"I was like, 'This is no way to live,' " says Mr. Peterson, who then began studying the way state transportation departments measure traffic.

What he found was a network of wire-loop detectors in the roadways that sensed automobile movement. Many cities throughout the country use detectors like these to get a read on traffic – but often the sensors go dead without much notice from the city.

Mr. Turner from the Texas Transportation Institute says poor traffic-monitoring infrastructure has given birth to a cottage industry trying to figure out ways to improve the flow of cars in major cities. But, "It could be another 20 or 30 years before the infrastructure improves enough to enable these private companies to come out with something marketable," he says.

That's why Peterson is taking his time to introduce TrafficGauge in other cities.

"Forty percent of all loop detectors are broken, and we don't want to launch a product unless the infrastructure meets our expectation," says Peterson, who notes that TrafficGauge will soon guide Chicago commuters.

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