A revolutionary approach to motor vehicle transportation that can benefit major metropolitan areas around the world will soon be launched from right here in our Tucson community.
University of Arizona startup company Metropia, Inc., — founded by UA civil engineering associate professor Yi-Chang Chiu – has developed a technology platform that is a potential game-changer in the dreadful world of traffic congestion.
Metropia’s Smartrek mobile app uses advanced traffic prediction and vehicle routing technology — combined with user rewards — to give drivers the best ways to avoid traffic while collectively helping reduce traffic congestion.
Automobile commuters using Smartrek get the clearest routes, along with the times it will take them to travel these routes when accounting for construction, road emergencies, and traffic congestion. In addition to route selections, the app will also suggest departure times with their associated travel times. Users who seek to avoid rush hour or a local parade or event can earn rewards for removing themselves from highly congested areas.
“Our research shows we need only 10% of drivers to avoid peak hours to make a noticeable difference in traffic flow,” Chiu said, estimating that a traffic system of a major city with Smartrek will see a 10 to 15 percent reduction in road congestion.
Motorists who complete a Smartrek-suggested route during the selected time earn rewards points, also known as “trek points” that they can redeem for gifts from Metropia’s partners. Rewards can include everything from free parking, event passes and other incentives from cities, to food and entertainment discounts from local businesses that want to attract customers that prefer traveling before or after peak hour traffic.
Smartrek uses complex algorithms based on historical traffic patterns and real-time congestion data to deliver the most accurate predicted travel times available from a mobile app.
“My goal really has always been to improve transportation,” said Dr. Chiu. “Government has had to manage transportation for decades by widening, re-widening and expanding highways. Freeway and road expansion costs on average from $2.5 to $15 million per mile to build. But now, thanks to technology, we can maximize the efficiency of roadways through driver influence, and individual decision to become part of the traffic solution instead of the problem.”
Congestion pricing is getting popular in the U.S., but Smartrek offers another complementary, compatible solution, he said.
Professor Chiu began working on transportation issues in 1995 as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. He came to the University of Arizona as a professor in 2006. In 2010, while visiting Disneyland with his family, Dr. Chiu was intrigued with the ride reservation system for popular attractions, which allowed people to avoid long lines by reserving a time later in the day to enjoy the ride.
In March 2011, Chiu filed for a provisional patent for the Smartrek technology and obtained $30,000 in seed funding for prototype developments. The following May the idea won second place at Startup Weekend Tucson. By January of this year the company signed its first contract with its first city, and added a second city last month. The company is not releasing the names of the cities pending official announcements, but it says they are among the largest in California and western Texas.
Car manufacturers, municipalities, fleet operators and consumers are all part of Dr. Chiu’s multi-faceted vision for the company.
He hopes to help city and counties by providing them with vital traffic pattern data that they can use for economic development and zoning, in addition to roadway construction decisions.
For car manufactures, he hopes to supplement on-board GPS navigation systems with customized versions of Smartrek.
Fleet operators like taxi services or commercial shipping companies using Smartrek technology will be able to maximize fleet efficiency while providing their customers with more precise delivery and arrival times.
And he hopes to accelerate consumer adoption of Smartrek by offering incentives through retail partners.
Metropia R&D Manager Xian-Biao Hu works with Dr. Chiu on maintaining Smartrek’s complex predictive algorithms. Hu said Smartrek field tests show that 35% of drivers are willing to change both their departure time and route.
“It demonstrates Smartrek’s potential in exploring people’s available flexible schedule or and proves its theoretical foundation in solving the world’s traffic problems,” Hu said.
Hu said Metropia’s field tests also show that when people change their behavior by leaving a little earlier or a little later, or by taking an alternate route, they cut their travel time by an average of 20 percent.
Hu, 28, completed his doctoral degree under the advisement of Dr. Chiu in late July. Hu specializes in intelligent transportation systems, and formally joined Metropia in September 2013.
The small, innovative company of about 10 employees is now gearing up for its official launch in early October. Starting in 2012, Metropia has been conducting field tests that showed Smartrek outperformed two leading predictive navigation programs available in the area.
“Smartrek is our end user product, part of our four-pronged, synergetic Metropia system,” Chiu said. “But, at its essence, Smartrek is so much more. It is our vision for the future. So many people choose to live in vibrant, innovative urban centers because of what they offer, and with Smartrek, we can leverage technology to enhance the quality of those lives.”
A video showing how Smartrek lets drivers help solve traffic congestion in their cities can be found on YouTube at http://youtu.be/JJjVSl0XyhY.
More information on Smartrek mobile traffic app can be found at http://www.smartrekmobile.com.