Sacramento, Nov 25 : The Transportation Department of Northern California, which has banned cell phones in cars, is allowing people headed to Tahoe for the holidays to turn their devices on, to test the efficacy of a new software program in sending information regarding traffic conditions to travellers' handsets.
The new software, called Traffic Pilot, can give a real-time colour-coded map on the cell phone showing how fast traffic ahead is going.
According to sponsors, it's a major step towards 'real time' tools to battle congestion, basically turning car cabins into commute command centers.
Phones can be programmed to give drivers verbal warnings about problems ahead.
The program launched two weeks ago immediately attracted more than 3,000 drivers, mainly in the Bay area.
Sacramentan Brian Simi, a Caltrans employee and tech fan, loves the program, but noted a kink.
"On Highway 99 the other day, it wasn't completely accurate. It said traffic (was slowing), but it was free-flow," the Sacramento Bee quoted him, as saying.
Tom West of Roseville, whose agency, the California Center for Innovative Transportation, partners on the program with Caltrans, digital mapmaker NAVTEQ and cell phone manufacturer Nokia, said that the accuracy would improve with more participants.
The system not only gives drivers a virtual view miles ahead on freeways, but also on big surface streets like Arden Way or Watt Avenue.
However, researchers acknowledge that the success will require overcoming fears some have about personal privacy, including worries the system can track an individual's whereabouts or set a driver up for a speeding ticket.
West said the program is designed so that can't happen. He said that cell phone readings are encrypted so that program operators or police can't track any particular vehicle.
The signals are merged at a central computer, mixed with other data and relayed back to drivers as an average speed for all vehicles on a section of road, not for individual cars.
The system currently works with only certain GPS-enabled "smart" cell phones. Sponsors say they intend to make it compatible soon with iPhones.