Gridlocks and Stopgaps

Traveling now means spending more time waiting for the journey to begin (or end). New technologies may help make car and air travel less frustrating. And even fun again...

Photo: Richard Tuschman

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.

We're stuck, caught in two-hour flight delays, 60-minute traffic snarls, and smoggy summers of our own creation. But not a moment too soon, technologists have come bearing promises to relieve congestion on roadways, in the skies, and in our lungs.

In "Forecasting Traffic Flow," Willie D. Jones notes that new data analysis techniques have made it possible to predict when and where traffic jams will occur. The aim is to make tratffic prediction at least as reliable as weather forecasting.

The data upon which these predictions are based will soon come from an unlikely source: wireless handsets, which--as researchers have discovered--make excellent traffic probes. Someday, traffic will be automatically routed around a tie-up, just as data networks direct packets around a malfunctioning router.

Elizabeth A. Bretz reports on developments in in-vehicle electronics that experts say will make the car of the future just another node on the global information highway. "The Car: Just a Web Browser with Tires" provides a glimpse of what the information exchange between the vehicle, its occupants, and the outside world will be like in years to come. By adding voice recognition and speech synthesis to applications like traffic reports, navigation, and emergency assistance, automotive engineers aim to make talking to your car not just something you do when it won't start on cold winter mornings.

Big changes are also taking place under the hood. Three developments that have changed the green vehicle landscape are highlighted by Michael J. Riezenman in "Fuel Cells for the Long Haul, Batteries for the Spurts." An electric vehicle run solely on battery power seems further off in the future than originally hoped. Fuel cells, once thought to be an even longer-term solution, have quickly come a long way--so far, in fact, that they may enter mass production before the batteries.

Meanwhile, hybrid gas-and-electric vehicles, once dismissed as stopgap technology, are being pushed as much for their superior fuel economy as for their environmental benefits. Perhaps after ignoring them for years, carmakers are begining to realize that hybrid vehicles can fill the gap.

For air travelers, the answer is not as simple as taking an alternative route. The U.S. airline infrastructure, long overtaxed, faces a disturbing paradox. Every departure the airlines add lowers the likelihood of any single flight taking off as scheduled.

A U.S. government plan to unravel airline gridlock by letting pilots help plan their own routes while air traffic controllers with updated tracking systems stand ready to avert conflicts is the focus of "Winging It" by Bretz. Although the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is hopeful, a history of failed systems upgrades has made controllers wary. They view the effort, called Free Flight, as more government rhetoric that does little to alleviate the terrible "too's": too many planes and too many concerns about equipment reliability. Nevertheless, the FAA hopes to quiet skeptics when the program's first phase is rolled out next year.

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