There is almost no information your little cell phone cannot pass on. And the advent of location-based services (LBS) allows mobile handheld devices to pinpoint the location of anything from the nearest pizza shop to your personal movements by triangulating between cell phone towers. Various gathered signals can warn drivers of collisions. It can be a lifesaver, a business boon, and a very scary leap forward for Big Brother.

And by the way, by 2018, you won’t have a license plate.

To display what’s currently cutting edge, what’s near-future, and what’s total fiction, Stevens Institute’s Howe School of Technology Management presents “The Rebirth of Location-Based Services — The Next Great Idea” on Monday, May 12 at 10 a.m. at the Babbio Center on the Stevens Campus in Hoboken. Cost: $250. Visit www.eurekalert.org or call 201-216-5602. Barry West, CTO of Sprint, serves as keynote speaker.

Panel moderators include Mark Thompson, vice president and technical director of Telvent Farradyne; Paul Manklewich, CTO of Alcatel-Lucent; Grant Lenahan, vice president of strategy with Telecordia; Bill Reinisch, vice president of Motorola; and Craig Kaufman, CEO of Kaufman Brothers Bank.

Telvent Farradyne’s Thompson has spent the last 17 years unsnarling traffic. Growing up in the Minneapolis suburb of Shoreview, Thompson attended the University of Minnesota, graduating in l982 with a bachelor’s in civil engineering. He took his first job as a traffic engineer in Texas and loved it. Seven years later, returning to his home state, Thompson undertook the daunting task of laying out the transport system for Minneapolis’ 4.2 million-square-foot Mall of America. Thompson coordinated all the roadways, signage, tracts, the light rail, bus, and all the metro transit. “This is where I got my first taste of intelligent transit systems, and realized its vital potential,” says Thompson.

After the Mall of America opened in l992, Thompson went to Telvent in Rockville, Maryland. As systems engineer and technical director, he oversees and aids development of the latest traffic data-gathering services. It is a multifaceted and very complex process, but its capabilities are snowballing.

“The technology we have right now can provide the traveler with so much information. From this point on, advances are more a matter of laying in the infrastructure and gaining acceptance,” says Thompson.

ATIS today. The Advanced Traveler Information Systems can warn travelers of everything from traffic jams to toll costs. The latest road conditions and mountains of tangential advice are available. Almost as great as these potential uses, are the numerous sources employed in gathering all this information.

Telvent is one of several companies that gather the source data from a series of vendors, sort all the pieces, coalesce them, and make coherent sense of it all for the consumer. “One of our main sources is the signature and strength of a signals from vehicles’ existent guidance systems,” says Thompson. “We can tell by its nature whether the truck is passing through trees, open field, suburbs, etc.”

Additional vendors report travel time, based on cell phone tracking. The toll tags system in New Jersey and New York, and traffic light bar sensors report distances and times. Even the number of passengers and major pot holes are reported by the computers that measure truck suspension monitoring systems.

For the traveler, this not only centers him in space, but in time as well. He knows not only that he is five miles before his Turnpike exit to Hightstown, but the motion of his and other vehicles gives estimated speeds based on other vehicles movement. Thus delays and accidents are instantly reported and configured. The driver hears the bad news in dulcet cyber voices. Mass transit and ride sharing information can also be spoken to our driver. But it’s going to get even better real soon.

Drive to future. “Don’t look for it five years, but definitely within 10,” says Thompson. “A lot of today’s driving guesswork will have vanished. And our roadways should be maximally efficient.” Already the federal government has mandated the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Initiative. This has urged and funded a wealth of new transportation engineering to keep our highways moving, unclogged and safe.

As Thompson sees it, many current data-gathering capabilities will be transferred to a roadside site, such as the state’s highway authority. If such a station tracks 10 trucks all going at a certain speed then one suddenly stops on-road, while the other nine slow down then later speed up, an accident could be likely. Quicker response time can be made to the site of the jackknifed tractor trailer. Injured folks get to the hospital faster.

Automobile computers will soon be carrying on lively conversations, to the benefit of blissfully unaware drivers. The car ahead will signal your car and the one behind of an upcoming “dilemma zone,” say a pothole, and make immediate correction. In larger accidents the computer may even consult the driver for a choice of the new routes it has laid out — who, after all, is the one paying for all this dandy technology. Traffic queues at lights will be instantly spotted and the lights automatically adjusted to keep things flowing.

Thompson estimates that within the decade, 25 to 50 percent of all cars will have such tracking and data receiving capacity. “As to how much will go to public hands and how much will remain proprietary with the manufacturer is a source of great philosophical debate,” Thompson says. “Certainly much of this can boost the maker’s own systems and adds a great sales feature.”

As for the disappearing license plate, do not fear that you will be any less tracked. Old plates will doubtless be sold on eBay as federal mandate replaces them with an “IP version 6” address. Internet Protocol version 6 allows approximately 10 to the 29th power more internet addresses that can be placed in virtually every electronic device. Microwave ovens, cell phones, and of course autos can now have their own cyber address. Within a decade no auto thief can grab your plate, and your government will know an awful lot more about where you are going. The policeman won’t have to ask “what’s your hurry?” He’ll already know.

Privacy vaporizes. “Much of the privacy problem is being handled separately, issue by issue, agency by agency, as it must,” says Thompson. Will the Turnpike Authority read my tag from point to point and give me a speeding ticket for arriving there too fast? The answer, says Thompson, is that they cannot. Toll tags are instantly scrambled with a code that changes every 24 hours. Spouses suspecting infidelity, legal authorities suspecting flight, and traffic police cannot trace your vehicle’s whereabouts. Thompson adds, “Actually, unscrambling this code is, I won’t say completely impossible, but it is so hard as to not make it worthwhile for anyone.”

Cell phone tracking signals will not become a an unwanted homing device planted on each Orwellian citizen. Each signature signal is given a code number that changes with each new call. That signal, as identified by that number, may be tracked, but no individual’s name or phone may be connected to it.

For those who recall downhill skiing in the 1960s and early 1970s, one of the least fond memories was the long lift lines, and resulting long waits between runs. Today, the sport has grown exponentially, the numbers hitting each commercial slope has grown time out of mind. Yet at almost every the lift line waits remain short. It wasn’t magic. It was merely the work of some very skilled time-motion engineers who figured the best traffic flow patterns for the ski slope owners.

Today, we are on the verge of witnessing a new efficiency explosion on our roadways. Yet with it comes unanswered questions. Will this focus our attention away from much needed public and alternative modes of transport? Will we be handing all our personal information over to a Big Brother government? As with all technological advances, this confronts us with a mixed blessing. Hopefully, we can handle this tool thoughtfully.

— Bart Jackson

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