Posted on 21 Aug 11
At 2:30 a.m. on July 14, when audiences for the midnight screening of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” left movie theaters in Portland, Ore., streets jammed with cars. To unclog the snarls, a smartphone app maker called GreenDriver was crunching real-time data from the city’s 800 traffic lights, giving turn-by-turn spoken directions to drivers to help them avoid red lights and traffic jams. “We saw a spike in green light activity ... and it was gone by 3 a.m.,” says GreenDriver’s chief executive officer, Matt Ginsberg, in describing the two-year-old app’s success that night at rerouting drivers to unclogged roads.
With phones mounted on their dashboards, some 20,000 drivers in Portland and Eugene who have downloaded the app can glance at suggested routes and listen to audio directions in order to save time and fuel that ordinarily would be wasted idling on busy streets. Portland, which in April became the first major city to share its traffic-signal data with GreenDriver, wants to know where people are driving, where they get stuck in traffic, and how to make their trips as convenient as possible, says Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson. “We want to know how to keep Portland moving.”
The nation’s traffic problems have been getting worse for decades, according to the Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University, which publishes an annual urban mobility report. According to its 2010 review, the cost of congestion has risen from $24 billion in 1982 to $115 billion in 2009. Over the same period of time, the annual cost to the average commuter rose to $808 and 34 hours stuck in traffic in 2009, compared to an inflation-adjusted $351 and 14 hours in 1982.
Unlike established technologies from Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom, which rely on traffic data from GPS satellites, GreenDriver also knows when lights are changing because it gets data directly from municipalities. It’s generally not enough to know how traffic along a route is flowing if you don’t know the state of the lights, Ginsberg says; deciding to avoid a traffic jam by switching streets depends on the behavior of both the traffic and the lights on those streets, for example. Still, Tim Lomax, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute, cautions that data from municipalities isn’t always reliable because of communications problems among traffic lights. Another newcomer, app maker Waze Mobile, which has secured some $37 million in venture capital, relies on GPS and its users, who feed traffic updates to one another through the app’s social network.
SALES TO MUNICIPALITIES AND DEVELOPERS
Ginsberg isn’t planning to make money from the GreenDriver app itself. He wants to sell the data back to municipalities with analyses of driving patterns baked in. He also sees property developers as potential clients. A developer that is considering building a strip mall in a city, he explains, would likely be very interested in the city’s traffic patterns.
A computer science professor on extended leave from the University of Oregon, Ginsberg can afford to be patient as he negotiates deals. He projects $2.9 million in revenue this year for his first company, 13-year-old On Time Systems in Eugene, Ore., which he is using to finance and staff GreenDriver. On Time makes software that finds efficient routes for noncombat flights for the U.S. Air Force. The paths he suggests reduce fuel consumption by up to 2 percent, or some 20 million gallons annually, Ginsberg says.
“We find acceptable solutions to complicated problems,” Ginsberg explains. “Solutions a shade better are worth it because of the volume.”
Most city traffic engineers had been reluctant to try GreenDriver on their turf. Ginsberg was unable to get cooperation in Eugene until 2009, when he happened to be listening to a call-in radio talk show with the mayor as a guest. Ginsberg called and proposed his idea on the air. That opened the gates. Drivers in Eugene have been testing the app for more than a year and report reductions in commute times and improvements in fuel economy of about 5 percent each, according to Ginsberg. He says GreenDriver will be available to every driver in Utah by the end of August. “The light data can give us a potentially permanent advantage,” Ginsberg says, “and if we can leverage that into people using GreenDriver over our competitors, we’ll win the social battle as well.”