Tapping driver phones for traffic updates

recognizing that drivers need real-time information about the road ahead, state transportation officials are preparing to spend $10 million over the next year building out a high-tech system to provide time-and-distance traffic updates to Massachusetts drivers.

A pilot program using portable electronic signs to provide the traffic updates on some of the state’s busiest highways has been deemed a success, so state officials are now starting to roll out permanent signs covering more than 678 miles of Massachusetts roads. The project will be the first publicly owned and operated, real-time traffic system in the country. It will cost about $500,000 a year to maintain.

“We’ve gotten a very good response,” says Rachel Bain, assistant secretary for performance management and innovation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “It’s made people a lot calmer.”

The signs appear to be far more accurate in predicting the length of rides than traditional traffic updates, mainly because the system uses Bluetooth-enabled devices inside the cars of commuters to anonymously track travel.

In each of the current and planned signs, there is a receptor that picks up Bluetooth signals from cellphones or other cellular-transmitting devices in new model cars as they pass. Each device contains a unique identifier called a Machine Access Code (MAC) address that the transponder picks up and is then fed into the MassDOT’s computer system. The system tracks each of those MAC addresses and when the vehicles pass another sign with a Bluetooth receptor/transmitter, the addresses are run through an algorithm that then estimates the time it took to travel the distance between the two signs. The system then transmits the time-and-distance information back to the original sign, which continually updates a screen so drivers know how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, C, or D.

Russ Bond, the director of Information and Technology Services for MassDOT, says the data collection is completely anonymous so someone driving, say, 85 in a 60 mile-per-hour zone, will not get an unexpected speeding ticket in the mail later on. Speeders, or people driving particularly slowly, would not even be included in the data used to provide the travel updates. Bond says the algorithm is programmed to weed out “anomalies” such as someone who drives above the speed limit or someone who pulls over at a rest area, delaying when they reach the next receptor point.

“Any anomaly, the algorithm will determine it is not useful,” says Bond. “If it’s outside of a certain statistical range, it throws it out. The data is taking an average from all of the vehicles.”

The receptors can also be adjusted to separate cars that travel in a High Occupancy Vehicle lane such as on Interstate 93 south coming into the city or the zipper lane on the Southeast Expressway. The antenna on the device has a range of 300 feet but Bond says it can be reduced and directed only at the general purpose lanes, where most commuters travel. Bond also says it’s not necessary for every car to have a phone or even to have the Bluetooth turned on.

“We only need about 5 percent of the traveling public to have their Bluetooth-enabled device on,” he says. “Regardless of behavior, we’ve always been accurate with the data.”

The accuracy claim comes with one caveat. The system posts time-and-distance information based on data collected from vehicles that passed a certain point several minutes earlier and are miles away by the time their data appears on the sign, so any accidents or breakdowns that occur in the meantime may not be included.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Bain says the federal government will pick up 80 percent of the $10 million cost to buy the technology equipment and install the 138 signs and 131 receptor points. While the current signs usually flash time and distance to just one or two points, all the permanent markers will have travel time to three destinations. Drivers getting on the Mass Pike at the New York border, for instance, will see travel time to Boston and two points in between.

The data collection will also be shared with app and web site developers, though Bain insists it is completely anonymous with no identifying information. The whole idea, says Bain, is to give commuters options, such as taking alternate routes or even opting for public transportation if a ride is going to take too long.

“The more information you have as motorists, the more options you have on your drive,” she says. “We’re looking to give you your time back.”