December 2005
Traffic Avoidance

A new service from Kirkland, WA-based Inrix predicts traffic slowdowns by
crunching road sensor data, weather, history, and local events.

By Erika Jonietz

In the interminable battle against traffic, a growing number of government
and private initiatives offer U.S. drivers high-quality real-time traffic
data and even short-term predictions of travel time from, say, one freeway
intersection to the next.

But most of the forecasts don't extend beyond 15 or 20 minutes. Though a
veritable traffic jam of companies has sprung up to offer data, they
generally inform commuters of snarls as they occur, which is often too late
for drivers to change their plans.

Now, actual traffic prediction -- forecasts of congestion levels hours and
even days in advance -- is on the horizon. It's coming from Kirkland,
WA-based Inrix, founded in 2004 by former Microsoft executives Bryan Mistele
and Craig Chapman and former Expedia executive Seth Eisner.

The company uses algorithms that originated in the labs of Microsoft
Research; its technology is the first fruit of Microsoft's initiative to
license intellectual property to venture capitalists and startups.

The Inrix software starts with a mass of data obtained from government
agencies -- real-time traffic flow and incident information from gadgets
installed on highways, including toll-tag readers, cameras, radar units, and
magnetic sensors embedded in the pavement. Inrix then adds speed and
location data from computers and Global Positioning System (GPS) units in
vehicles owned by trucking and delivery companies. These vehicles
effectively act as mobile sensors, and Inrix buys the data they collect.
Finally, Inrix adds up to two years of historical traffic flow data, weather
forecasts and conditions, and even local road construction schedules, school
calendars, and dates of events like concerts and athletic contests.

The company's proprietary statistical models combine all this data to
provide not only a snapshot of current traffic flow but also predictions
about expected congestion and road conditions over the next several hours
and even days. Each city requires its own unique model; the model for San
Francisco alone contains about half a terabyte (500 gigabytes) of data, says
Oliver Downs, Inrix's chief scientist.

Inrix plans to have models for the 30 largest U.S. cities available by the
end of 2005 and to provide traffic predictions to drivers through
partnerships of various kinds. It announced its first partnership, with
digital-mapping company Tele Atlas, in September.

Tele Atlas will offer Inrix services to all of its customers, which include
companies such as MapQuest and T-Mobile Traffic. Inrix plans additional
partnerships, with companies such as cell-phone operators, traditional and
satellite broadcasters, and in-car navigation services.

Approximately 3,000 drivers in the Seattle area have been using a prototype
service based on Inrix's technology. Traffic information is delivered via
smart phones, and sections of the city's highways show up as green, yellow,
red, or black, depending on the level of congestion. The phones also display
estimated times until roads will either clear or become jammed. The company
says that the service correctly color-codes routes about 88 percent of the
time when forecasting conditions up to 48 hours in advance.

The goal, says Mistele, is to provide drivers with truly useful information
about traffic, such as the best route for a delivery van, the ideal time to
leave work, how to reroute a trip to avoid an accident, or even an estimate
of travel time from a New York City hotel to Newark Airport next Thursday
evening. And while the cost to individual consumers will be set by
resellers, current traffic services range in price from $20 to $120 a year.

Without doubt, there is a market for the kind of service Inrix has created,
says Mark Dixon Bunger, who covers telematics as a principal analyst for
Forrester Research. But predicting how well the company will do may be even
trickier than predicting the traffic. "What is easy to say is that they've
got great backing and they've got great finances. They're in a much better
starting position -- but it is a starting position -- than most other

In fact, Inrix already received $6.1 million in first-round venture funding
in April from August Capital and Venrock Associates. If Bunger's forecasts
hold up, traffic prediction and dynamic routing will begin to make an impact
in the marketplace within about five years. And if drivers have any luck,
those predictions will mean they spend less time in gridlock.

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