Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Notes from the Future - Google Traffic

Disclaimer: Google Traffic is not a real product yet. In my "Notes from the Future" series, I like to describe imaginary innovative products from the future.

Google Traffic is Google's latest innovation that promises to change the world. It is a traffic light system built and managed by Google. It uses the most sophisticated traffic routing algorithm to manage the flow of traffic in dozens of cities, big and small, around the US. The results have been so encouraging in these American cities, it is estimated that hundreds of cities around the world will install Google Traffic within the year.

The main feature making this system so efficient is the traffic sensing cameras installed all over the city which provide constant feedback about the traffic conditions to the main traffic management system. For example, if a bunch of cars are moving along a single road, in a single direction, towards an idle intersection, and there are not many cars coming from any other direction to the intersection, the system learns about this long before the cars reach the intersection. It turns the right lights green so that the cars can pass through the intersection without stopping. This is just a simplistic example. In reality, the system can handle much more complex traffic patterns. The system is smart enough to calculate such parameters as the number of cars moving towards an intersection, the number of cars already waiting at the intersection, the average wait times, etc. It uses this information to ensure that there is minimum average wait time for the cars, minimum fuel burnt waiting and minimum time spent commuting to places.

Studies of people's commutes in cities with Google Traffic have shown an average of 3% - 9% decrease in travel times. More tellingly, the cities have shown an average of 2.5% - 5.5% month on month decrease in gasoline sales compared to the months prior to the Google Traffic installation. A clear sign that Google Traffic is delivering useful results. In the coming months and years, the system is expected to get smarter as it learns a city's traffic patterns, the areas and times of maximum and minimum traffic, the directions of traffic flow at different times of the day, and days of the week, etc. And of course, Google has its vaunted team of PhDs working on making the system more and more efficient.

So, what's in it for Google? Advertisement, of course. Google has started to buy up space on thousands and thousands of electronic bill boards in cities where Google Traffic is installed. The traffic system provides a valuable input to Google for targeting display ads in places where it can ensure maximum attention from passing commuters. Google changes these ads based on the traffic density in the area, the time of day, day of week, seasonal patterns, etc. Google even uses information from users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation who have opted-in to share information about themselves, their interests, and their locations with Google to target bill-board ads at them when they pass by. There is the story of a Google engineer who proposed to his girlfriend this way during the initial beta testing of Google Traffic in Mountain View, California.

Incidentally, users of Google Latitude and Google Navigation also form an input to the Google Traffic system, along with the roadside cameras. In a beautiful example of a reinforcing positive feedback loop, Google Traffic provides extremely accurate traffic information to Google Maps and Google Navigation. And in a major enhancement to Google Maps, the roadside cameras enable real time live streamed video on Street View.

Google Maps Contact Search

Contact Search in Google Maps will most probably be a future enhancement to Google Maps, especially the mobile version. As of now, it's only a feature in my own imagination.

Here's how the Google Maps Contact Search will work:

When you are on the Google Maps screen, just type 'C'. A search box will pop-up. Start typing in the name of one of your contacts in the box. Google will suggest names from your address book. Select a name and hit enter. Google will show the contact on your map in one or more of the following ways:

1. Display the contact's current location if contact has enabled Google Latitude sharing with you.

2. If you have the addresses for the contact in your address book, those addresses will be shown on the map too.

3. If you are using a phone that has Google Navigation installed on it, you can just tap on one of the contact points on the map and have yourself routed to that spot immediately.