Travel time and speed to be determined by new road sensors

By Colin Shively

The use of hand held mobile devices while driving has become a hot topic and even outlawed in seven states. However, these electronics are becoming a new method of determining how fast traffic is moving in Chicago on one of the nation’s most jammed highway.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, working with the Chicago Highway Department, will temporarily introduce a method of developing traffic patterns.  New sensors will detect Bluetooth signals along the Eisenhower Expressway between Thorndale and downtown Chicago in June, according to Marisa Kollias, spokeswoman for IDOT. These signals are emanated from mobile devices such as smart phones, laptops and some vehicles. The new system is called BlueTOAD, Bluetooth Travel-time Origination and Destination. BlueTOAD was created by the Wisconsin-based TrafficCast, a company that produces traffic control technology.

BlueTOAD will be deployed every 1.5 miles along the Eisenhower. When a car with a Bluetooth signal passes by the unit, their Bluetooth signature is anonymously captured and recorded. When that same signal is registered by a device further down the road, an accurate, reliable traffic-travel time is known, said Nick Kiernan, vice president of Business Development at TrafficCast.

Because of the construction along the Eisenhower between Thorndale and downtown Chicago, the normal ground sensors, which count both travel speeds and the number of vehicles on the road, are no longer in use. The majority of the devices have been dug up and traffic is rerouted, according to Kollias. The construction is expected to be completed in Fall 2010.

“These temporary devices only provide travel time, and cannot count vehicles,” Kollias said. “They are used to give relative traffic conditions, and the popular travel time numbers expected by the general public.”

However, if the signal is not picked up again after a period of five minutes, the computers register that traffic has most likely stopped or is moving slowly.

The majority of cell phones have Bluetooth capability, but not all owners have this feature enabled on their mobile devices. However, this is not a problem according to Kollias.

“All it takes is one vehicle captured between any two consecutive devices to give an accurate travel time the more captures, the more the figure is verified,” Kollias said. “Background computers filter out el trains with multiple users going at 60 mph, and provide the singular or multiple spaced vehicles.”

The Federal Highway Administration announced on May 26, the list of the top 100 locations for the worst traffic bottlenecking in the nation, and Chicago is in the top two categories. The worst rated in the country is the interchange between the Eisenhower Expressway, the Kennedy Expressway and the Dan Ryan Expressway. This is also known as the Circle Interchange.

“The Eisenhower resurfacing project is a necessary endeavor for the agency,” said Joe Spedale, director of Sales and Marketing for the Traffic Control Corporation. “Our objective was to support them with the most advanced technology to help those drivers deal with the expected congestion this summer and fall.”

Traffic is mainly congested because of the Eisenhower, said Josh Kauffman the communication manager at IDOT. According to Kauffman, they hope the new Bluetooth sensors will aid motorists in determining the best travel times and routes.

Currently, traffic information is distributed to drivers through different means. The main one is the Dynamic Message Sign, a large electronic sign that is placed over highways that give up to date information on traffic.

“[BlueTOAD] will give information to the motorists and used to make informed decisions on alternate routes,” Kollias said. “The same info will be displayed on the Dynamic Message Signs, and the website along with the Highway Advisory Radio.  After the project is complete, we may relocate these units on parallel arterials to give an accurate bypass condition.”