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Technology that can beat the traffic

  • Traffic hasn't worsened much since last year, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report. But any traffic is bad news. Can technology help reroute us around all this congestion?Texas Transportation Institute

  • Traffic hasn't worsened much since last year, according to the latest Urban Mobility Report. But any traffic is bad news. Can technology help reroute us around all this congestion?Texas Transportation Institute

Do we really need to be told that traffic is terrible? 

It's that time of year again when the Texas Transportation Institute releases its annual Urban Mobility Report. It's a rough enumeration of how much time we're wasting each year staring at taillights ahead of us. It's also a barometer of how the economy is doing, the amount of pollution we're generating, and how much money we're burning up in fuel.

The good news is that traffic hasn't worsened much since the previous year. But any traffic is bad news. In 2011, according to the report, U.S. drivers languished in it for an agonizing 5.5 billion hours. We also threw away money to the tune of $121 billion in extra gas.

Whining rights for wasting the most time in traffic goes to -- no surprise -- Washington, D.C., where they do enough whining and time wasting already. The rest of the top four worst traffic spots out of a total of 498 nationwide were Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

Can technology help route us around all this congestion? It can help, at least a bit.

The Institute culls the traffic data from the U.S. Transportation Department and state departments, as well as from traffic and navigation company Inrix. Inrix is one of several companies trying to attack the traffic problem using technology, specifically by tracking cars and smartphones on the road and then sending that information to other cars on the road in order to adjust routes and give drivers new directions.

The technology has had me pinballing between parallel highways. In the end, I saved only two or three minutes for all my hassle.

It's an excellent idea, but it requires that a large percentage of vehicles on the road use GPS tracking and two-way communications. Exact numbers are elusive, but experts I've spoken with say 20 percent use would give us all a pretty good picture of road conditions. Unfortunately, we're nowhere near that.

One of the more popular portable navigation device makers, Tom Tom, has also been working for years on live traffic reports. I regularly test their devices and have a love/hate relationship with the HD Live traffic reports. I've had it save me 45 minutes or more on a 3-hour trip. Even when I've stubbornly ignored the nav's feminine voice beseeching me to change my route, it still bailed me out when I came to a sudden halt around the next corner, leading me off the Interstate and away from further highway headaches.

On the other hand, traffic conditions have a tendency to change minute-to-minute as accidents are cleared or new obstructions appear. Consequently, many times the technology has had me pinballing between I-95 and Connecticut's dreaded Merritt Parkway. In the end, I saved only two or three minutes for all my hassle.

Not dissimilar approaches are being tried in the smartphone crowd-sourcing arena. Apps like Waze (now used by Apple) track other users of the app with icons that float along your route estimating current speeds. But it can be distracting. During one frustrating stint in neck-snapping stop-and-go traffic I noticed that another Waze user was somehow gaining on me in a different lane. It took all my self control not to start jumping back and forth between lanes.

Possibly more important than fuel, pollution, or money is the hypertension that traffic congestion generates. So the report now includes a rating for how much hair we're pulling out in particular urban areas. Surprisingly, New York City is not number one in this area either. The commuter stress honor goes to Honolulu (so much for the sunny clime).

At least technology may be able to help relieve congestion stress when self-driving cars are widely available. At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, Audi was very keen to demonstrate how its "Piloted Driving" system could allow drivers to take their hands off wheel in traffic and spend the time reading the newspaper (if newspapers still exist then).

Finally, for the first time the Urban Mobility Report includes its own suggestion for solving the traffic problem: public transportation. It now ranks the potential hours and dollars that could be saved by using buses and subways. At last, New York City ranks number one in this category.

So are we stuck for now grinning and bearing the traffic? At least one technology can solve the traffic problem for many of us today: telecommuting.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.