MIT project uses tech to cut rush-hour commute times

CarTel project analyzing traffic woes from 50 cars driving around Boston

Frustrated commuters armed with giant cups of coffee and at least three books on tape can take heart that researchers at MIT are trying to figure out how to get them home faster.

Dozens of cars in the Boston area have been equipped with technology that's feeding information into a mobile-sensor network designed to analyze traffic and then predict when and where tie-ups will occur.

The program was unveiled about a year after Nissan Motor Co. showed off its own attempt at making drivers' commutes a bit less stressful. The car maker's Robot Agent, which sits in the dashboard of the company's Pivo 2 concept car, uses built-in cameras to read the driver's facial queues and pick up on whether he's getting tired or stressed out. The robot, speaking in English or Japanese, will nod, shake its head and even blink while it talks the driver out of a bad mood or suggests that he pull over and take a break.

As part of the CarTel project, MIT professors have placed an onboard computer about the size of a cell phone in 50 cars -- including 40 taxicabs -- in the Boston area to monitor vehicle speeds during trips. The systems use QuickWiFi connections to speed on-the-road data flow.

"CarTel understands where traffic delays are and recommends routes to avoid them," said Samuel Madden, an associate professor in MIT's department of electrical engineering and computer science, in a statement. "Everybody's data is contributing to collective views of what congestion looks like."

The collected data, according to MIT, can be accessed from the Web or from a cell phone, letting commuters check conditions before they leave home or the office, or from their own vehicle. The system is aware of the location of traffic tie-ups and recommends alternate routes.

MIT professor Hari Balakrishnan, who is working on the project with Madden, told MIT that CarTel has cut his commute time by 25% by recommending an alternate route that, while a few miles longer than his normal route, is less congested and saves the time.

The CarTel technology is also linked to the vehicle's diagnostics system, so the driver easily can check on how well the engine is functioning.

MIT researchers had announced in 2007 plans to find ways to reduce congestion on city streets.

As part of the effort, a team at MIT is working to design a City Car, which officials describe as a foldable, stackable two-seater vehicle. The frame of the car is designed to fold in half so the cars can be stacked up eight deep in one city parking space.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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