Computers Can Save The World From Another Carmaggedon

Technology can predict where there will be traffic jams, and divert drivers someplace else

In more end-of-times news, Los Angeles is bracing itself for the apocalypse.

Or, rather, a really big traffic jam. Same thing, if you live in L.A.

A granddaddy of all traffic jams, nicknamed Carmageddon, is expected to hit the L.A. metropolitan region this weekend when a ten-mile stretch of the 405 Freeway is closed for construction from Friday night to Monday morning.

Experts say current traffic woes are nothing -- massive gridlock may be something we can't avoid in the future.

And others say this is nothing more than another doom-and-gloom prediction that will turn into a big nothing.

"Like Y2K," said Ashley Nazarian, referring to the much-hyped worldwide computer data meltdown that never happened as the clock turned to Jan. 1, 2000.

Nazarian, property manager for the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a mall that is located next to an exit on the affected stretch of the 405, might be worried, but she isn't.

The state is closing the highway for 53 hours to replace the 50-year-old Mulholland Bridge as part of a $1 billion road improvement project. The looming traffic snarls have hospitals prepping helicopters to be on standby instead of ambulances. Hotels have been booked up for a few weeks, by people staying closer to where they need to be over the weekend. And celebrities like William Shatner and Ashton Kutcher have been using Twitter to tweet out warnings to their fans, asking them to stay home.

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But even though this traffic jam is going to be temporary, global gridlock is a problem urban planners are already worried about. As populations gravitate toward cities, companies and governments are hoping technology can reduce excessive bottle-necking.

Technology Can Help

IBM, for one, thinks its Smart Traveler predictive technology may have the answer.

Smart Traveler, developed by IBM in cooperation with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) and University of California, Berkeley, is a pilot program to provide San Francisco Bay Area commuters with predictive commutes. The technology combines CalTrans road sensor data along and other historical data it has collected about those roads to send messages to drivers about what might be happening when they arrive a few minutes later.

"There are so many sensors that are providing us with real-time information, but many times real time is not good enough," said Naveen Lamba, an expert in IBM's Intelligent Transportation department. "There's only so much you can do when something has just happened. if we can get ahead of the curve, it opens up more options."

By pooling cell phone data, toll data, GPS location markers, city loop censors and video footage, Smart Traveler can provide information that's more relevant to motorists.

"You want to know ahead of time what's going to happen on my journey and what are the recommended alternatives," Lamba said. "Rather than being in front of a sign that says, 'Congestion Next 5 Miles.' "

IBM has also been developing data expansion algorithms that can more accurately predict larger traffic flow patters with just a morsel of data.

With the growth of urbanization, as seen in L.A. and this weekend's impending doom, roads are crowded. These kinds of technology can help ease traffic patterns without incurring the cost of major road construction projects or investing more in public transportation. When drivers have more information, they can change their schedule or route if necessary and try to avoid some traffic.

Of course there's one pitfall, Lamba admitted. If everyone changes course, the alternate routes then get crowded, too.

"The minute you tell people what the prediction is, your prediction isn't valid anymore," he said. "People act on that."

Bottom Line: The only thing you can do to survive this weekend's traffic hell in L.A. is to stay away from it. But in the future, computers might be able to offer drivers more options.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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