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The Techno-Utopian Plan to End Traffic Jams

It sounds like a no-brainer, but for it to work everyone has to actually play along—like communism.
Photo via Flickr

It's probably safe to say that in the near future, all cars will have some sort of GPS system, right? Which means theoretically, a technology that's tracking the location of every vehicle on a certain road or even town should be able to use that data to manage the traffic and avoid jam-ups. Like air traffic control, but for highways.

Soon, researchers in the Netherlands will put that theoretical scenario to a test. A team from the Dutch IT firm Technolution is developing a GPS navigation system that tells drivers what lane to move into and when, and how fast to drive, so that traffic is dispersed as efficiently as possible to avoid congestion.

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Drivers would download an app to their phones—or maybe someday, straight to the internet-enabled screen in their car—to get real-time instructions based on the traffic layout in the area. Cars could also come equipped with extra sensors to provide more data on what's going on on the road.

The researchers, working with the Dutch navigation company TomTom and Delft University, plan to run a test of the system next year with around 1,000 drivers on about 50 miles of highway, AFP reported today. It sounds like a no-brainer, but for it to work everyone has to actually play along—like communism. So that jerk whizzing by the backed-up line of cars in the right lane only to try and squeeze in at 10 yards before the exit could blow the orderly system for everyone else.

The more cars on the road obeying the system, the more effective it'll be. In fact researchers say 30-40 percent of drivers on the stretch of highway would have to be using the app for it to work at all.

The Dutch firm is hardly the only company betting that technology can deliver us a future free of congestion and collisions. Techno-utopianists love tackling the traffic problem. Because traffic's the worst. It's this antiquated human phenomenon that sucks up time, burns resources, and ruins your day. Plus it seems totally solvable with data and analytics—two things that our modern-day digitized society has gotten really good at.

Startups like Waze (now owned by Google) already crowdsource traffic data to redirect cars around backups. And the smart cars of the future could have GPS antennas, wireless transmitters, sensors, and augmented reality windshields, and who knows what other newfangled gadgets gathering and delivering information to drivers—essentially acting as extended eyes and ears on the road.

Even beyond that, the fast-approaching internet of things could mean a networked infrastructure sending a torrent of real-time data that knows where the next stop sign is, when the light up ahead will turn green, that the truck five cars in front of you just slammed on his breaks. Suddenly a little geolocation app seems oversimple even, but it's a start.