Hey, Mr Brumby! Want a fix for gridlock?

Hey, Mr Brumby! Want a fix for gridlock?

What would it cost to fix Victoria's traffic gridlock?

La Trobe University double-degree Honours graduate Graham Rivers-Brown says he can do it for $120 a vehicle with a battery-powered, wireless data-management system the size of two-and-a-half matchboxes – plus $1,000 per intersection.

What's more, he reckons traffic-weary motorists will willingly bear the cost.

Are you listening, Mr Brumby? Here's how it works (and, courtesy of Google Earth and a simple road test, Mr Rivers-Brown can demonstrate that it does):

GPS (Global Positioning System) devices are installed in many vehicles – in an optimum scenario perhaps all vehicles – to collect and transmit data about their precise location and speed to wireless data access points fitted at traffic intersections and other high traffic points.

Transmitted live via a 2.4GHz wireless radio network, the data is then electronically interpreted and displayed on a small computer screen at a remote location to reveal how the traffic is flowing at all locations under observation.

When vehicles fitted with the devices move along at average or fast speeds, the system records a coloured trace on the computer screen that follows the exact route being taken, in real-time - indicating unrestricted traffic flow.

When the vehicles slow or stop, the trace changes colour and/or stops, indicating some kind of restraint - perhaps a sharp bend or an intersection - but when there is detail from multiple vehicles, more likely gridlock, from congestion or an accident.

Traffic authorities can then divert or remobilise the traffic to break the gridlock - by altering electronically-controlled speed limits on freeways, abbreviating red-light waiting time at intersections, and diverse other traffic management processes, including longer term solutions (e.g. better road networks).

In a simple extension envisaged but not yet developed, individual motorists could also monitor traffic flow as they drive, picking up live "hot spots" on a laptop computer screen, or, as a further option, on their GPS satellite navigation devices – warning them to avoid certain roads and intersections.

If too many vehicles taking alternative routes then threaten secondary congestion, this too would be defused, as upstream motorists pick up new logjam warnings – assuming of course all vehicles are fitted with multi-functional data transmitters and receivers.

The shorthand term for Rivers-Brown's gridlock cure is "Smart Intersections + GPS". He came up with it as a 2007 final year electronic engineering project for his double-degree course in computer science and electronic engineering.

As with the wheel, the wireless and the telephone, this ingenious invention delivers a pint-sized and simple solution to a complex communications challenge - in this case the marriage of GPS navigation systems already in common use with laptop-accessible electronics.

The process in brief: a GPS receiver collects information from satellites orbiting Earth; this is passed to a microcontroller, which interprets, compresses and transmits it to a controller node via a 2.4GHz wireless; the controller node decompresses the data and sends it to a computer for logging and interpretation.

Traffic authorities and motorists would need to install data-processing hardware to interpret the signals bouncing back from the controllers – necessitating for traffic authorities an appropriate central server for managing network data, but for individual motorists, nothing more complicated than a backseat laptop or a modified GPS unit.

Mr Rivers-Brown says his entire system would cost about $120 per vehicle - plus about $1,000 per intersection for the data-collecting devices.

Although he designed the system in response to gridlock, he sees even greater potential for it as a consumer product, given the accelerating uptake of driver-controlled satellite navigation aids like TomTom or NavMan. He says the GPS data-collecting component might very easily be integrated into these increasingly popular commercial units - and "who would not want an in-vehicle navigation system that tells you where NOT to go?"

While VicRoads has yet to see the system in action, Mr Rivers-Brown illustrates very simply how it works with a laptop computer and Google Earth software. In a vehicle fitted out with the GPS receiver, a data-processing device and a 2.4GHz transmittter, he drives at varying speeds from his home in Preston to La Trobe University in Bundoora – interpreting the journey in real-time on a Google Earth map on a laptop computer on the back seat. The system records a clearly visible trace of every second of the journey and every constraint as he drives.

Mr Rivers-Brown's project supervisor, electronic engineering laboratory manager Mr Peter Stewart, says his student's application of computer science and electronic engineering skills are a valuable advance towards the 'holy grail' of traffic management: managing the flow of traffic in real time, and adapting the system to optimise the flow of traffic.

"An ideal system would 'know' every vehicle's origin, destination, and route taken. Graham's system promises to be a valuable step towards achieving that," he said.

Media inquiries

Graham Rivers–Brown
M: 0433 015 286
E: graham@extg.net

La Trobe University Honours Supervisor
Peter Stewart
Department of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences
T: +613 9479 2078
E: p.stewart@latrobe.edu.au

For further information, please contact
Adrienne Jones
Media & Communications,
La Trobe University, Bundoora
T: +613 9479 5513
F: +613 9479 1387
M: +61 0423 846 512
E: adrienne.jones@latrobe.edu.au