Those devices not only receive data. They produce it.
More users in the system mean a wider footprint from which crowdsourced information can be collected. The wider that footprint grows, the more accurate the information becomes. And the more accurate it becomes, the more applications can be found for the information.
"We're starting to see what we can do if everyone has this available," said Jim Bak, spokesperson for INRIX, a Seattle-based real-time traffic information provider.
A look at the company provides a snapshot of where the real-time traffic industry has been and where it's headed.
Five years ago, a University of Maryland study found the traffic information provided by INRIX had accurate data within 10 miles per hour at least 85 percent of the time.
In 2011, the latest version of the same study found that INRIX's accuracy had improved to within two miles per hour 95 percent of the time.
In the past, the company has relied on data from DOT traffic sensors and private partners like UPS and FedEx. Recent partnerships with the likes of Ford, Toyota and Audi have allowed the company to rely more heavily on GPS information and expand its crowdsourced base to approximately 100 million vehicles and devices in its global network.
INRIX, known for its annual report on traffic congestion in American cities, is applying those new resources to everything from reducing C02 emissions to researching autonomous driving. Among the new uses for real-time traffic information:
• An alert can warn drivers of bumper-to-bumper traffic looming ahead and ask them if they prefer to switch to autonomous driving mode.
• Based on traffic conditions, applications can give drivers a series of eco-routing scenarios that could save them time and money at the pump.
• New applications can use fuel-range information and point drivers to the nearest possible gas or charge station.
But the applications aren't only reserved for drivers.
In New Jersey last summer, transportation department employees observed an anomaly on their screens and thought there was a mistake. In a matter of seconds, a green line that denoted smooth-flowing traffic along Interstate 95 outside New York City had turned amber, red and then black. A standstill.
There had been no reports of a problem, no calls to police about accidents. They thought a computer bug caused the problem.
But the computer wasn't wrong. It was right, to an extent the employees had never seen. A dump truck had overturned and because of the real-time data, they had a DOT truck on the scene before first responders arrived.
INRIX CEO Bryan Mistele said there's all sorts of other applications for the data beyond drivers.
Insurance companies are interested in identifying clients who live near troublesome spots. Hedge fund managers would like to analyze traffic patterns around retail stores, in hopes of getting a sneak preview of possible earnings.
In addition to its annual traffic report, INRIX plans to release a new report in July that analyzes peak traffic conditions on high-volume routes, and quantify how much money drivers could save on gas by choosing a real-time alternate route.
And any applications for air traffic?
"I get asked that a lot," said CEO Bryan Mistele, who recently helped INRIX expand into Moscow and parts of Brazil. "But Technology in the cars is generations ahead of what's in the air. We have our hands full right now."