Google Maps and Live Traffic Reporting

A relatively new feature to Google Maps that you may or may not have seen yet is Live Traffic Reporting. For a quick example, try visiting this map of Sydney CBD and Parramatta Road. Notice there are 5 buttons at the top-right, one of which is Traffic. By clicking the Traffic button, the map is superimposed with a legend showing the traffic conditions in the area. Green is good, yellow is slow, red and blank means you better turn up the music and get comfortable as you won't be home for a while...

Live traffic is a feature I've been wishing for in GPS systems for a while. It's all well and good for a GPS to plan out the shortest/quickest static path, but it's not very useful when driving through heavy bottlenecks. A GPS with live traffic support that's factored in to the path-finding algorithm could theoretically shave a lot of time off your trip.

The beauty of Google Maps and Live Traffic is the way in which data is collected. Whilst other systems in the past have relied on external traffic feeds where conditions are manually phones in from pedestrians/motorists/road-cameras/news reporters, with Google Maps this data is anonymously and automatically collected with zero user intervention, which basically means a lot more frequent updates from a much larger audience.

To be more specific, users with a modern smart-phone that supports GPS and web-access to Google Maps have the option to turn on Location Services. Once turned on, your phone regularly records your GPS coordinates and beams them back to Google Headquarters via your mobile carrier's data network. Google then interprets all the coordinates from each user, calculates the speed traveled, averages these together for every road and updates the live map stream.

Now I'm not sure on the specifics of how often GPS coordinates are beamed back from each user, or how often Google updates the map, or how much data this chews from your mobile quota, etc. Also, the conditions on some roads may or may not be accurate depending on the number of people sampled. It may work better for large roads where there are many drivers and hence a better sample group, but what about a small side-street where there's only one Google Maps GPS Location Enabled driver that stops for some Drive Through? This is probably factored in the Google algorithms, but the accuracy of the service depends on the number of people willing to turn this service on.

It does raise some interesting privacy concerns though. For example, if Google tracks your GPS coordinates and calculates your speed and finds you're doing 90km per hour in a 60 zone, could they report this to the police? Or what if you're doing 150? The official Google blog says this isn't an issue as each device only sends anonymous non-identifying information, and all individual stats are deleted after being sampled and averaged.

Still, I suspect this type of technology would be of high interest to law enforcement and insurance agencies. Can you imagine the power they'd have if they could tell the exact speed you're doing at all times? No need for road speed cameras anymore, whenever you put your foot down a system will be able to automatically detect your infringements and send you a fine directly to your registered email address. Likewise, insurance companies would be able to trade in driver profiles and adjust their premiums accordingly.

How long do you think before this is embedded in every new car manufactured and made mandatory for all drivers?


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