These startups are finally starting to look like true ride-sharing services+ READ ARTICLE
First, the bad news: carpooling has been on the decline in America for nearly four decades. That practice could be helping the environment and America’s commuters, who are needlessly stuck for hours each day on packed highways. Multiple people sharing a single ride to a common destination is a simple act that has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, ease traffic, lessen fossil fuel dependency, reduce stress on commuters, and even drive down rents in dense cities. Yet the practice fell out of favor after reaching a peak in the 1970s.
Now, the good news: popular tech companies Lyft and Uber are leading a wave of new services that have the potential to revive shared rides. “What fascinates me about these things is: can they move us closer toward a vision of an integrated public transit system?” asks Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “And can it move us closer to filling empty seats in vehicles?”
Despite referring to themselves as “ride-sharing” companies, Lyft and Uber have largely been in the business of what transportation experts call “ride-sourcing,” because they essentially provide the same service as taxis through their own platforms. “I’ve studied ride-sharing for a long time, and the definition of ride-sharing is really carpooling,” Shaheen says. “And a carpool is an incidental trip.” That is, it’s a trip that a driver was going to take regardless of whether anyone else was with them in that car.
The distinction isn’t just academic. When the thousands of drivers working for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco are picking up a single fare and taking them from Point A to Point B, it’s probable that they’re adding to unnecessary congestion, pollution and fuel consumption. But last summer, within hours of each other, the companies announced that they were rolling out UberPOOL and Lyft Line in San Francisco, passenger-pooling options that would give riders cheaper fares if they’d be willing to share their vehicle with strangers traveling a similar route.
The companies say customer interest has been high so far. Each company has since expanded the service to Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City, and Uber has launched POOL in Paris. Lyft says that 50% of rides in San Francisco are Lyft Line rides, and a little more than 20% of all Lyft rides in the city start or end within a quarter mile of commuter rail stops. “That’s notable,” says Shaheen. “It means people are taking this short trip in one of these vehicles and connecting it to a longer line-haul transit trip. It’s basically enabling somebody to not take a single-occupant vehicle for this long commute trip and to rethink how they commute.”
Uber crunched the numbers on their “matched trips” for one month in San Francisco, comparing them to the number of miles that vehicles would have traveled if all those rides had been taken individually. They estimated that UberPOOL rides taken between February and March amounted to 674,000 miles of saved driving. That’s the equivalent of 240 people driving round trip from L.A. to New York. “UberPOOL is really about trying to reinvent cities from a transportation perspective,” says product manager Brian Tolkin. “Part of that means making Uber so affordable that it’s really available to anyone and a better alternative to, say, owning a car.”
Of course, before these companies start patting themselves on the back for saving the environment, they have to offset the number of cars they’ve brought onto the road. They aren’t releasing data about that, and there is other crucial information missing. The most important piece, Shaheen says, is knowing what the people using these services were doing beforehand. If someone is now using a combination of Lyft Line and public rail rather that driving alone in a car from San Francisco to Cupertino, that represents a greater environmental offset than if that person was previously taking public rail and a public bus.
Carpooling took off in America during World War II, when the government asked people to start sharing rides to work so they could conserve rubber for the war effort. The practice gained popularity through the 1970s, spurred by volatile energy prices, employer-sponsored programs and the advent of HOV lanes. But as gas prices dropped, cars got cheaper and more people and companies decamped for far-out suburbs and exurbs, more workers began taking their own cars to the office. Carpooling became associated with the inconveniences of neighbors’ inflexible schedules, awkward reimbursements and a lack of privacy. Nearly one in four people shared a ride to work in the 1970s. By the time census workers asked about that practice in 2010, the number had dropped to about 10%.
It’s too early to tell if Lyft and Uber’s early efforts will reverse that trend. But it is clear that they are benefiting from a changed landscape. Smartphone ownership has exploded, allowing people to connect and share useful information about where they are. Familiarity with social networks can encourage strangers to trust each other. The algorithms matching riders and drivers—while keeping routes convenient—are constantly improving. And though car sales have continued to climb in recent years, younger urban residents say they’re less interested in driving and owning their own vehicle.
Perhaps the most promising trend line for these services is that Uber and Lyft are finally solving the problem that has derailed past attempts to solve America’s carpooling problem with technology. “When you have a new system with a really small number of people in it—which any system will when it’s new—there’s a very, very low probability that you’ll have a match between all the potential origins and destinations of a driver and a passenger,” says Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy. “So those systems that had tried to do that have been pretty uniformly unsuccessful, because they have a high failure rate.”
That’s what happened to Zimride, an early incarnation of Lyft. Among the key lessons for Zimride’s founders when they rebranded as Lyft: always have drivers available, lest you deter potential customers. “We’ve been able to build up a network that has enough density that it actually is getting to the point now where we do have a ton of people using it,” says Castor. “So we’ve kind of overcome that chicken and egg problem and we now can start doing really interesting things.”
Those experiments include “Driver Destination,” which allows a driver to specify where they’re headed and signal that they’re available to pick someone up. The app will only link the driver to a passenger going the same way. This type of trip can help eliminate wasted space in cars and potentially keep superfluous cars off the road–an efficiency that experts like Shaheen call the holy grail. “The next phase for Lyft is to look at how we can increase that commuter carpooling activity and to expand on our vision to make it so any time any driver is on the road, [they] can be using the empty seats in their cars to give rides to other people,” Castor says.
The key to long-term success may be money. For these services to truly take hold, drivers will need to see the upside of bringing a few strangers along for the ride. Old-fashioned carpooling was set up for passengers to reimburse a driver for just gas and wear and tear, a piddling bit of change per mile. “That’s just not enough to make people notice and think about doing that,” Castor says. “But if you could earn $15 on your way to work and your way home, that would probably raise your eyebrows.”
They're not just a funny thing to feature on sitcoms
Most days, here are no actual humans manning the Suitable Technologies store on the main drag in Palo Alto, Calif. Instead, the salespeople remotely “beam in” from places like Hawaii and New York to operate the company’s roving BeamPro robots, five-foot tall rolling devices with speakers and screens on top. One of the robots has a leaf blower attached. Another one does a routine where the “pilot” drives it across the street to buy ice cream for potential buyers.
It’s a cute gimmick. But as these machines get more advanced, they could seriously change the way distance affects people’s lives. Here are seven ways how:
Helping families connect to each other and their homes. In a recent episode of Modern Family, Phil gets grounded by an ear infection and is unable to return home for his daughter Alex’s graduation party. So he sets up a robot (this $2,500 one made by Double Robotics) to act as his surrogate.
The subplot makes it clear that this early generation of wheeled machines has limitations—like not being great at going down stairs. But one can also see how much richer the connection is than handing a phone around from person to person. And you might notice that no one else has to sacrifice what they’re doing to take care of faux Phil, like what happens to the relative who gets stuck lugging a Skyping relative around on a laptop.
Today in the Suitable Technologies store is actual breathing human Tom Wyatt, a VP of sales at the company. He talks about how people have used the robots—both the $17,000 enterprise version and the $2,000 consumer version—to be virtual wedding guests and family reunion-ers. He has one in his house that his daughter, off at college, uses to have dinner with the family or sit around watching a San Francisco Giants baseball game with her brothers.
“We’re just hanging out,” he says. “Just like she’s here.”
Improving elder care. Other customers have bought the robots to stay better connected to aging parents. Because machines like the BeamPro can be controlled remotely, those aging parents never have to turn it on, control it or remember to charge it. Kids can check in to make sure they’re okay or that they’ve taken their medicine. Various robot manufacturers are making deals with assisted living facilities, who are touting these gadgets as an amenity that helps keep families connected once someone needs full-time care. There’s more potential for interaction than with a phone or computer screen, too — the robot can take a stroll down the hall with Nana, for instance. As people get older, they often get isolated. Social interactions that can really simulate having a human in the room could have serious health benefits.
Making the business world smaller. As these robots get cheaper, there will be more consumer usage. But the early adopters have been big businesses like Google who are using them to attract the best talent (“No need to move to Mountain View!”) and make collaboration better when all the key people can’t be in the room together. Though there are various companies making these roaming machines, Wyatt says he sees Suitable’s biggest competitor as traditional video conferencing. The situations where the robots thrive are ones where there needs to be movement or a greater sense of presence.
Rolling robots have given keynote speeches, moving around the stage like speakers would stroll. Convention centers have purchased them so they can rent them out by the hour to people who want to be at a conference for a half-day instead of shelling out for the plane ticket, hotel and so forth. Business owners who need to keep an eye on their factories in China have used them to check up on things so they have to make the trip half as often.
Giving recruiters an edge: The football coach at Stanford University, Wyatt says, uses robots for recruiting.
“You’re in a situation where you have a limited number of visits that each guy can do to each campus,” he says, alluding to NCAA regulations. “So this kid is in Iowa—or wherever—can beam in, drive around the athletic building, look at the weight facilities, plug in the 4G card, drive over to the practice facility, drive over to the stadium.”
Touring schools by robot could become standard practice for kids in the future, making the process of choosing a college far more economical. Tech companies and other businesses, meanwhile, can use the same scheme to lure future employees.
Making culture accessible. Institutions like the Smithsonian have used rolling robots to help bring the museum experience to disabled people. Rolling along viewing paintings and artifacts with a docent, people from all over the world can see exhibits up close. As machines get more rugged and have more robust connectivity, Yellowstone or Yosemite could have them on hand for visitors to explore national parks. Machines like the BeamPro come with technology similar to the type cars use to brake automatically when the vehicle detects something in front of it—like a kid running into the street—which can help make sure no one is driving these off cliffs.
Changing real estate. Real estate agents are using rolling robots to give people virtual tours of spaces they might want to purchase, like the couple from New York interested in a San Francisco apartment.
“People say, I’d love to buy that place, but what does my view look like? And what do the amenities look like?” says Wyatt. Right now, Suitable’s machines are being used mostly in static places—like a condo complex in Hawaii. But the robots could be popped in and out of an agent’s trunk and used all over the place, so long as they shelled out for a 4G connection or had listings with stable Wi-Fi.
Outsourcing jobs. At the Suitable Technologies store, the jobs are outsourced to make a point. But there are other human jobs that could be outsourced via rolling robots to save companies money, which could be unpopular with locals. Take the example of a security guard wandering around a parking lot on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park. A computer can’t do that job, but “there’s a guy in Nebraska that would probably be very willing to have that job and at a lower wage than anyone would around here,” Wyatt says.
Teachers could command a classroom remotely and wander down the hall to the faculty lounge. Specialist doctors could go up and down a hallway visiting bedridden patients, rather than being reliant on video equipment in every room. Wyatt has sold some robots to clinicians who want to be in more than one place.
“It’s that freedom and control piece that makes a difference,” he says. “It’s not that the traditional video conferencing system doesn’t work. It’s just limiting.”
Investors are pouring money into the field
Correction Applied Tuesday, June 9.
When you think of food, you probably don’t think of technology. However, technology has played a major role in the food world, whether it was taking farming from oxen-led plowing to tractor based harvesting to today’s discovery’s of natural pest controls to the controversial bioengineering of food. Technology, especially things like social networks and services like Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Yelp, OpenTable and Table 8 has had a big impact on the food industry and there are thousands of food blogs covering just about any related topic one could think of.
This past week, there was a fascinating conference held at the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium called Bite Silicon Valley, organized by Octagon Culinary that discussed the intersection of food and technology. Various chefs and industry speakers on the program talked about the major issues facing the food industry and more importantly, the real concern over how, by 2050, we’ll be able to feed a planet of 9 billion people.
The conference was held in Silicon Valley because the food industry and tech industry have started to intersect and companies like Google and Yahoo have major research projects related to the future of food. Many Sand Hill Road venture capitalists have placed major bets on various food technology and services. As a couple of venture capitalists at the event told me, food-related start-ups fit into their sustainability portfolios, alongside solar, energy or electric cars because they have the potential to positively impact our world.
The goal of some of these VC investors is to connect restaurants with food providers, or to create on-demand delivery services from local farms, or ready-to-cook dinner kits. Other goals I have been told about are to invent new foods, like creating cheese, meat and egg substitutes from plants. One of the companies that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Bill Gates and Biz Stone have invested in is Beyond Meat. It was there giving tastings of its new plant-based Beast Burgers and beef crumbles. I tasted the Beast Burger and it’s one of the best plant-based burgers I have ever eaten. According to Tim Geistlinger, VP of research and development at the company, “the Beast Burger is not trying to be a meat substitute. It is designed to become a new type of protein-rich food product that does not use soy or have any GMO products in them but could be used as a meat substitute for the center of one’s plate.”
Beyond Meat believes there is a better way to feed the planet. Geistliner said that the “mission is to create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein.” It is “also dedicated to improving human health, positively impacting climate change, conserving natural resources and respecting animal welfare.” This captures well the thinking of Bill Gates and other Valley tech investors who have identified with this vision.
Another company with similar goals is Impossible Foods. This company has raised $75 million from VCs so far and like Beyond Meat. Its quest is to create a plant-based meat substitute with high protein that could be used to feed people all over the world.
According to CB Insights, in 2012, VCs and others invested $350 million into food tech companies or projects, and that amount is rising about 37% every year. With all this Silicon Valley investment, especially in companies trying to create meat alternatives, it seems that this has become one of the tech world’s next holy grails.
The event included two days of tastings from local chefs and as a food event it was spectacular. But the event’s more noble purpose was to get the food and tech world talking about the serious issue of world hunger and the challenge of feeding the planet in the future.
One of the big messages that came from the conference is that there are significant environmental consequences and health issues associated with eating too much red meat, sodium or sugar and sugar substitutes, and while world hunger is a major problem, so is obesity in many places around the world. They had some great sessions about “What are we doing to enable to the planet to feed 9 billion people by 2050,” as well as sessions titled “the Challenge of Food Waste” and a “Renewed Debate about GMO’s.”
The keynote speaker at the event was Chef José Andrés, who TIME named to its 100 most influential people in 2012. Andrés has become an activist in the food industry to get folks who work in food to find ways to deal with the world hunger challenge. He has also put his money where his mouth is, investing in the World Central Kitchen. Its website states that “World Central Kitchen is hard at work ’empowering the people’ to be part of the solution – with focus on building ‘smart kitchens,’ training on clean cookstoves, creating jobs, and strengthening local business.” Andrés spends around six weeks a year devoted to these types of projects and said he came to this event to challenge Silicon Valley executives to join the food industry’s quest to deal with the massive issue of feeding a hungry world.
Andrés gets very animated and passionate when he talks about one serious problem he sees that he believes we must deal with immediately. He said that at least 3 billion people in the world still cook using stones and wood fires. The smoke from these fires causes all kinds of health issues including cancer, cataracts and asthma and impacts the women and children who do most of the cooking for the family’s daily meal. It also impacts the girls in the family who spend up to three hours a day gathering the wood or fuel for the fire, sometimes in hostile areas where many have been attacked. He has become a chief advocate for what he calls “clean cook-stoves” and has backed the use of solar stoves and less harmful fuels to be used in these villages and towns where people’s only form of cooking is fire and smoke.
I spoke with Andrés after his keynote and he told me that “he strongly believes in the power of food as a change agent” and he is devoted to making the food world a serious contributor to being a major part of providing a solution for these particular world problems. While Silicon Valley has some investments in this area, it needs to do more in the way of actual financing of new food tech companies and do extended research in this area with goals that are aligned with Andrés and others who understand the magnitude of this problem and how it will affect the worlds future. Silicon Valley is known for its exceptional problem solving skills and I certainly hope that the tech execs who heard Chef Andrés’ plea will join him and others in the food industry to help deal with this massive world problem.
Tim Bajarin is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. and has been with the company since 1981 where he has served as a consultant providing analysis to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry.
Correction: This article originally misstated the company behind the Beast Burger. It is Beyond Meat.
Researchers say there are sound and possibly scientific reasons to pay more attention to the month you were born in+ READ ARTICLE
“Whenever I present our work, I have to allow for laugh time,” says Nicholas Tatonetti, a scientist at Columbia University Medical Center.
Not a common practice for a serious academic researcher, but then again, Tatonetti studies something quite unfamiliar to those more accustomed to the intricacies of biological and molecular explanations for the human condition. “I study the month people were born in, to see if that changes their risk of developing disease in their entire lifetime,” he says. And in his latest report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, those results are pretty eye-opening.
By delving into the extensive database of patients seen at Columbia Medical Center over 14 years, beginning in 2000, Tatonetti and his team did a first-of-its kind look at whether birth month has anything to do with disease risk. Some previous studies have looked at the potential connection, but these investigations focused on individual conditions such as asthma and brain conditions, and therefore might have suffered from disease- or population-biases.
Tatonetti found that among 1,688 conditions for which patients were seen, 55 showed a strong relationship with birth month that could not be explained by chance alone. These included 20 conditions that were already described from previous, smaller studies, and 16 completely new associations. These included a surprisingly large number of heart-related diseases.
“Not only was it surprising that nobody had studied the relationship between heart disease and birth month yet, but we found not just one association but several with the same trend of increased lifetime risk of heart disease for those born in late winter and early spring,” says Tatonetti. “That’s suggestive of a mechanistic relationship, although we don’t yet know what that is.”
Earlier studies, for example, had connected birth in late summer or fall with asthma or respiratory problems, since mothers pregnant during the winter may be more likely to catch the flu or other respiratory infections. Tatonetti’s group is collaborating with 40 other institutions around the world to standardize patient electronic health records so the anonymized data can be studied for possible explanations of the birth month trends. The database will include environmental data as well, since it’s well known that environmental exposures — to things such as pollution, second hand smoke and more — can influence expectant moms and their developing fetuses.
He prefers to call what he does a study of seasonality rather than birth month. “Astrology puts a lot of stock on what month you were born in, and that really hurts this type of research, since there isn’t much scientific evidence to support that,” says Tatonetti. “But seasonality is a proxy for variable environmental factors present at the time of your birth, and we are learning more about the very large role that environment, and gene-environment interactions, plays in our development. This could be one way to start mapping out those gene-environment effects.”
To see which conditions you might be more vulnerable to developing, find your birth month in the wheel below.
Read next: How Your Cat Could Make You Mentally Ill
Safety advocates promote a dashboard mounted breathalyzer test+ READ ARTICLE
Road safety advocates converged on Congress Thursday to promote a new set of blood alcohol sensors that could prevent drivers from operating their vehicles while intoxicated.
The technology was unveiled by a joint research program called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADDS), which brings auto manufacturers together with regulators and safety advocates to work on technological solutions to drunk driving.
The sensors promoted by DADDS could be breath-based, pulling in exhaled air from the driver, or touch-based, and could determine the driver’s sobriety in “less than a second,” according to a video released by the organization.
If a driver’s blood alcohol level rises above .08, the nationwide legal limit, “the vehicle won’t move.” Drivers under the drinking age could face a “zero tolerance” system that powers down for any trace of alcohol on the breath or under the skin.
For a speech highlighting police reform, President Obama chose to travel to Camden, New Jersey.
The Philadelphia suburb is one of the nation’s poorest and most violent cities, but in the past two years it has also become something of a poster child for police reform, earning praise from Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie alike.
The city’s mayor tells TIME that a restructuring of the police force helped transform an area that she said was borderline lawless. “Camden has had the reputation of being the most violent city in America for over two decades,” Mayor Dana Redd says. “It was almost like anything goes.”
On Monday, Obama will highlight the city’s reform efforts as a model for other municipalities where police and community relations are strained, tour a police data center and meet with young people from the area.
The city is home to about 77,000 residents but saw a record 67 homicides in 2012. That year, officials gutted the expensive, city-led police department and rebuilt a county police force in an effort to get more uniformed officers on the street. Many had been laid off in 2011—the year after, the city faced record homicides. In a city where violent crime was once rampant, the mayor says there’s been a 40% drop in homicides over the past two years.
A recent survey found students in middle and high schools feel significantly safer leaving the building. And the police and community members work together to keep peace. The city is also one of 21 communities across the nation that is taking part in a White House initiative to make better use of data and technology to increase transparency and track crime.
The President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing released its final report on Monday, filled with pages of recommendations on how to make communities safer and restore trust. Camden was highlighted as a city on the right track. The Camden County Sheriff is quoted in testimony he gave before the task force saying, “the only way to significantly reduce fear, crime and disorder, and then sustain these gains is to leverage the greatest force multiplier: the people of the community.”
“It’s new paradigm unlike what the former police had to offer,” Redd says. “The new police department is really integrated in a way that connects with the community in positive engagement and our officers are serving as role models.”
That’s not to say the problems have been solved. The Wall Street Journal reports civil liberties groups have taken issue with the increase in citations for minor infractions and that groups like the NAACP are concerned about the fact that the new force’s union isn’t as strong as the past one. The mayor calls the overall experiment a “work in progress,” but notes that by restoring law and order to Camden, doors of opportunity will open in other areas. She wants to see businesses coming back, more students completing their educations, and perhaps even vibrant tourism in the city’s future.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Redd says. “But, this year we can see a light at the end of the tunnel for the people of Camden.”
How better software can help the police
Scott Crouch doesn’t sugarcoat his feelings about the software that most of the country’s 700,000 or so cops use on a daily basis to log arrests, traffic stops and leads. “It looks like someone vomited a thousand bugs on a screen,” the 23-year-old says dismissively.
Crouch is the CEO of Mark43, a New York City–based startup that claims it has developed a better system for getting police records–currently a patchwork of isolated paper and digital files–into a single searchable body in the cloud. The software can display relevant information that’s as readable as the feeds on LinkedIn or Twitter. Crouch says this new way of visualizing suspects’ data–sketching out a web of phone calls or following a gang’s movements across a map, for example–could help investigators identify key players in a crime ring or exonerate the usual suspects much faster.
The deluge of so-called Big Data is overwhelming law enforcement as much as it is any company in the private sector. Detectives, for instance, often have access to more information than ever before, but pinpointing key facts, like a suspect’s activity in neighboring precincts, involves frustrating manual searches. In other words, connecting the dots is much harder than it looks on television.
Not that there’s a shortage of companies trying to change that. IBM’s Watson supercomputer, best known for its victory on Jeopardy! in 2011, is now fielding so-called natural-language questions in a trial run with police officers in Tucson, Ariz. Data-analytics giants SAS, Oracle and Microsoft provide software that can present existing law-enforcement reports in more easily readable formats. Nobody tracks exactly how much American police departments spend on such software, but overall IT spending in the criminal-justice system in the U.S. totaled $3.5 billion in 2014, according to researcher IDC Government Insights.
Mark43–the name is a nod to the Iron Man suit–began as a school project Crouch worked on as a Harvard junior. Shadowing Massachusetts state-police troopers to measure the effectiveness of police tactics, he found his attention repeatedly drawn to the way the police fumbled with their software. “You’d have to hit TAB five times, hit six buttons, open up three new boxes to actually search for a report, and even then it wouldn’t really work,” he recalls. By 2013, Crouch and two of his fellow engineering students had secured $2 million in a seed-funding round led by Spark Capital, an early investor in Twitter, Tumblr and Foursquare.
Since then, Mark43’s software has expanded to walk officers through the scut work of filing a police report. Regulations stipulate every question along the way. Recovering a weapon, for instance, triggers a cascade: Was the owner notified? Where notified? Date notified? Storage facility? Location of storage facility? Mark43 expands and contracts the decision tree, automatically filling in fields when possible. Police can search for a suspect by name, alias or keyword. Clicking on a suspect’s page pulls up a mug shot and, beneath it, mug shots of associates, much the way Facebook displays friends of friends. The page also loads live tweets pulled from the suspect’s Twitter feed, assuming he or she has one that’s public. (Crouch says a surprising number of suspects have active social-media accounts.)
This year, Mark43 secured a contract with one of the nation’s largest metropolitan police departments, which will replace its current record-keeping system with Mark43 software. Police chiefs will be watching closely. In recent years, massive new technology deployments haven’t always gone smoothly: New York’s $88 million 911 dispatch system has suffered a string of outages, and a glitch in Dallas’ $4 million record-keeping system resulted in the early release of 20 inmates. As Los Angeles’ former chief technology officer Randi Levin put it to trade publication Government Technology: “The criminal justice requirements were never written with cloud computing in mind.” Mark43 hopes to prove otherwise.
This appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.
Using data to make cities run smoother
The traffic signals along Factoria Boulevard in Bellevue, Wash., generally don’t flash the same stretch of green twice in a row, especially at rush hour. At 9:30 a.m., the full red/yellow/green signal cycle might be 140 seconds. By 9:33 a.m, a burst of additional traffic might push it to 145 seconds. Less traffic at 9:37 a.m. could push it down to 135. Just like the traffic itself, the timing of the signals fluctuates.
That’s by design. Bellevue, a fast-growing city of more than 130,000 just east of Seattle, utilizes a system that is gaining popularity around the U.S.: intersection signals that can adjust in real-time to traffic conditions. City officials say that these lights, known as adaptive signals, have led to significant declines in both the hassle and cost of commuting.
“Adaptive signals make sure that inefficiencies never happen,” says Alex Stevanovic, director of the Laboratory for Adaptive Traffic Operations & Management at Florida Atlantic University. “They can make sure that the traffic demand that is there is being addressed.”
As city leaders increasingly turn to data for insight into running their metros more efficiently, adaptive signals have emerged as a 21st century strategy to chip away at a longstanding scourge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 11 million Americans commute more than an hour each way to their job while 600,000 U.S. residents have one-way “megacommutes” of at least 90 minutes or 50 miles.
And all that time on the roads costs money. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that U.S. commuters lost $124 billion in 2013 due to the cost of fuel, the value of time wasted in traffic, and the increased cost of doing business. CEBR predicts those costs will rise 50% by 2030.
Only 3% of the nation’s traffic signals are currently adaptive, but the number of smart signals in the U.S. has jumped from 4,500 in 2009 to 6,500 in 2014, according to Stevanovic, who tracks the signals’ installation around the U.S.
The largest concentration of adaptive signals is in Los Angeles, a city that has long struggled with congestion. Nearby Orange County, Calif. has the second largest, followed by Utah, where about 80% of the state’s traffic signals are adaptive. But the frontier of adaptive traffic management may be in Bellevue, according to transportation policy experts. The city’s overhaul began in 2010 when it began implementing a system called SCATS (Sydney Coordinative Adaptive Traffic System, which was first developed and used in Sydney, Australia). Currently, 174 of Bellevue’s intersections have been outfitted with the new technology with plans for all 197 intersections to use adaptive signals by the end of the year.
The system uses a series of wires embedded in city streets that tell the signals how much traffic is moving through the intersection. When traffic is heavier, the green lights stay on longer. Less traffic means shorter greens. During peak traffic periods, nearby intersections sync their lights to allow long stretches of green. When there are fewer cars on the road, those intersections revert to their own cycles. Mark Poch, the Bellevue Transportation Department’s traffic engineering manager, says uncoupled intersections work more efficiently when there are fewer cars on the road because they can better respond to specific situations at that cross street.
Along Factoria, one of Bellevue’s main downtown arteries, travel times have decreased by 36% during peak rush hour since adaptive lights were installed, according to city transportation officials. Along NE 8th Street, another heavily trafficked street, travel times are down 43% from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Those decreased delays appear to add up to real savings for drivers: Bellevue officials say the $5.5 million system saves drivers $9 million to $12 million annually (they estimate that a driver’s time is worth $15 an hour).
For all of Bellevue’s success, adaptive signals are not a panacea for clogged roadways. Kevin Balke, a research engineer at the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, says that while smart lights can be particularly beneficial for some cities, others are so congested that only a drastic reduction in the number of cars on the road will make a meaningful difference. “It’s not going to fix everything, but adaptive has some benefits for a smaller city with a particular corridor on the verge of breaking down,” he says.
In Bellevue, the switch to adaptive has been a lesson in the value of embracing new approaches. In the past, Poch says, there was often a knee-jerk reaction to dealing with increased traffic: just widen the lanes. Now he hopes that other cities will consider making their streets run smarter instead of just making them bigger.
“It’s been a slow change,” Poch says. “It’s easy to think the way to get out of it is to widen the road. However, as we move toward being better stewards of our resources and more sensitive to environmental issues, let’s take what we have and operate it better. I think that’s a more prevailing thought now, and I think it makes sense.”
Tow trucks and phone apps are tapping data to give you a jump-start
The ice storm that hit Nashville this February was the worst in 20 years. Freezing rain glazed the roads, so when one of Michael Cunnyngham’s employees discovered he had a flat tire, there was already a long queue of auto-club members ahead of him who had put in calls for help. “They said they’d be there in an hour. Then it was two hours,” recalls Cunnyngham, who runs a tech company. “Then it was the end of the day. So I thought, There has to be some Uber for wreckers,” he says, referring to the popular ride-hailing app. His search results turned up Urgent.ly, a Virginia-based startup that indeed bills itself as the Uber of roadside assistance. He called the employee and told him to download the app. “I get a really happy message from him not more than a few minutes later saying somebody’s coming,” Cunnyngham says. Within 30 minutes, the tire was fixed. “You couldn’t ask for a better experience,” he says.
Roadside assistance is a $10 billion market in the U.S.–and now tech companies are revving to disrupt it, replacing call centers with dispatch algorithms designed to locate the best nearby vehicle that can help with a lockout or winch a car out of a ditch. Entrepreneurs like Urgent.ly CEO Chris Spanos believe that motorists need an on-demand alternative to paying for insurance plans they might not use or blindly calling tow companies in their time of need, with little way to tell if they’re being overcharged. “You should only pay for service when you need it,” he argues. But taking on an industry behemoth like AAA, which has 55 million members, is going to be a long haul–especially because AAA is mapping out innovations of its own.
Urgent.ly and its main competitor, the Santa Monica, Calif.–based Honk, both offer flat rates, promise quick response times and provide maps in their apps that show users where their rescuer is with real-time updates. These companies are positioning themselves as not just a snappy service for the smartphone crowd but also a new revenue stream for towing companies. While AAA, which is a not-for-profit corporation, says it does not release exact figures for how much its contractors get paid, tow-truck operators have said it’s in the neighborhood of $25 per call. Kwame Scott, owner of Scott’s Towing in Suitland, Md., says he makes about $75 if that same call comes through his Urgent.ly app. Like Uber, these startups are taking about a 25% cut and handing the rest over to the drivers. “If technology can get into towing, then, hey, swell. We’re in,” Scott says.
Honk CEO Corey Brundage says the company started getting a series of call-and-cancel orders last year that they traced to AAA employees. “We do mystery-shop to see how services compare,” says AAA spokesperson Yolanda Cade. She emphasizes that America’s famous motor club has been around for 100 years and responds to “more than 30″ million calls per year; members typically also receive travel discounts or other membership perks. AAA is a federation of 43 motor clubs around the country, which can customize what they offer. In late 2014, the Mid-Atlantic club started running RescueMeNow, a web-based on-demand service for nonmembers, which comes with a follow-up contact enticing users to join. The Southern California club has meanwhile been providing a “service tracker” that shows a real-time map in the AAA app. Some car manufacturers also offer roadside assistance as part of their warranties.
Silicon Valley investors and several national companies are betting on the new guard. Honk announced a $12 million fundraising round in March, soon after Urgent.ly announced that its app will be part of AT&T’s connected-car platform, AT&T Drive. Still, towing providers like Scott aren’t sure how revolutionary these apps will be. He says that while he might get $75 for a job placed through Urgent.ly, he’d get $100 if the customer called him directly. “It hasn’t become a major part of my business,” he says. “But it’s a nice addition.”
This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.