High-tech solution to CA's road woes?

With roads crumbling, can auto braking systems, traffic data displays and other high-tech gizmos keep CA drivers moving?
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

The San Jose Mercury News takes a doubting look at claims that high-tech can solve the state's highway woes. The woes are substantial - indeed, overwhelming.

California has the most congested urban interstates in the nation and ranks high among states with the most crumbling federal roads. Each year, the average South Bay driver pays $689 in pothole-related car repairs, according to Transportation California, a highway advocacy group.

Realistically, there is no way the state government will pour enough money into the highway system - or into public transportation - to fix the situation. So some planners are pinning their hopes on technology.

`Cars are getting smarter and smarter,'' said Randy Iwasaki, Caltrans' chief deputy director. ``Think back to what a cell phone could do 10 years ago and what you can do now. That technology is coming to our cars.''

Carmakers are designing automatic braking technology in which cars detect the distance to the car in front and brake appropriately, thus avoiding the fender-benders that wreak havoc on commutes.

[B]y the end of the decade most new cars will provide traffic information on dashboard screens, with blinking hot spots to catch a driver's eye and colored lines suggesting alternate routes. Eventually, cars within 300 yards will send and receive warnings about sudden changes of speed.

But, so far, there's no data exchange format. ``GM cars could talk with each other, but no other manufacturer's cars,'' said John Bonds, a Cupertino-based specialist in intelligent highway designs for the PBS&J engineering and consulting firm. A sophisticated communication system could take at least 10 years to develop. Until then, Bonds said, ``we'll be stymied from employing smart cars that keep dumb drivers from doing unsafe things.''

Even technology costs money, although not as much as asphalt. In the Bay Area, Caltrans needs:

  • Lane detectors every half a mile. But only 1,200 of 3,200 detectors have been installed.
  • Another 700 closed circuit TVs to monitor traffic. Only 300 are in use.
  • About 200 large electronic message boards. Only 96 are installed.
  • More than 1,100 ramp meters; only 210 ramps now have them.
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