Monday, May 13, 2013

Technology and Transportation - News in Brief

A quick compilation of some recent news at the intersection of technology and transportation.  Is Siri safer than texting? Will traffic-responsive speed limits make Oregon's highways flow smoother? And how is a Las Vegas billionaire pioneering the future of (private, for-profit) carbon-free multi-modal transportation?

Find out after the break:

Siri's no better than your thumbs:

A new study out of Texas A&M concludes that voice-to-text technology is no safer than regular texting while driving.  The study measured driver response times (by pressing a button when a light in their field of vision illuminated) during a simulated text conversation (write a message, 3 read & reply messages, and 1 reply only).  Drivers completed the conversation 3 times each using a different method: manual input, the voice dictation and message reading features of iPhone's Siri, and an Android voice-to-text program.  The study found that driver response times during the task were not significantly different, with drivers taking twice as long to respond to road events while texting.  Counter intuitively, manual texting was the fastest method.  The study also found that users felt safer while using the voice-based methods, even though their performance was equally degraded.  This has dangerous implications, since the feeling of safety can lead to less cautious behavior.

The study reinforces that a driver's divided attention is the most dangerous consequence of texting, and that the physical distraction of holding and using a phone is less important.    However, the study did not test entirely hands-free or eyes-free texting methods.  Instead, the study had participants holding the phones while using the voice technology, and most participants looked at the phone during the task.  Eyes-free features, being pushed forward by Apple, emphasize deeper integration between car and phone.  Using an eyes-free setup, a driver could theoretically manage a text conversation without taking their eyes off the road.   However, the literature indicates that even these efforts will not address the root of the safety concern, and may do little to alleviate the dangers of distracted driving.  It may even make it worse, by making it seem safer.

Read the study from Texas A&M's Texas Transportation Institute:

Dynamic Speed Limits Coming to Oregon

Oregon DOT is planning to implement new "smart" highway features, including variable speed limits, on the 217, I-5, and I-405.  217 will receive most of the upgrades, with the key element being a series of high-resolution LED message boards for travel times, lane closures, crash alerts, and other information to travelers. Following in the footsteps of Washington State DOT, ODOT is also planning a series of variable speed limit signs that will reduce the speed upstream of congestion.

By slowing traffic as it approaches congestion (about a mile and a half early, before the drivers know to slow down), ODOT is expecting a reduced number of crashes from drivers unexpectedly approaching gridlock.  Crashes, often caused by sudden breaking or lane changes, exacerbate congestion problems and lead to unpredictable delays.  Washington began a similar program in 2010, and has seen 7-25% reductions in major collisions since.

Find out more about WSDOTs program:

Multi-modal Carbon-free Transportation Networks, Las Vegas Style.

A new venture in Las Vegas, Project 100, is launching soon and aims to completely transform mobility for its customers.  The project, the brainchild of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, is a private for-profit transportation network and part of his urban revitalization program Downtown Project.  The no-carbon network encompasses a fleet of 100-chauffeured Tesla electric roadsters, 100-DIY (drive it yourself, car2go style) electric cars, 100-shared bikes, and a 100-stop shuttle bus system.  For around $400 a month, members enjoy their choice of transportation modes.  It's pricey compared to a transit pass, but less than the usual cost of private car ownership.  The whole system will be tied together with a smartphone app that presents members with a menu of transportation options available wherever and whenever they need.   Call up the app, and you might be presented with these choices: be picked up by a driver in 3 minutes, drive yourself in a car that's .2 miles away, grab a bike that's .1 miles away, or hop on a party bus in 4 minutes.  The project is intended to be profitable, scalable, and replicable in other cities.

Stay in the know about Project 100 at

Thank's Brett Lezon for editing this post. 

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