Motoring: Hi-tech ways to avoid the jams

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'M LATE and it's the early-morning rush hour on the southern section of the M25, a time and a place where it is essential to have up- to-date traffic information.

All over the country, more than 1.2 million motorists get caught up in jams every day. This congestion results in 2.7 million lost man hours and costs the economy some pounds 129m. So alerting drivers about trouble ahead and steering them out of a jam is an area of research which is rapidly developing in importance.

Even the BBC has come up with a travel service which is set to revolutionise the way we get our travel information. But, for the time being, what are the options on a Friday morning?

The majority of in-car music systems are now equipped with Radio Data Signalling (RDS), which not only retunes your radio for the best reception in whatever broadcast area you are driving through, but also interrupts your tape, CD, or radio programme with the latest local travel bulletin. This morning, my RDS system introduces me to BBC Radio Kent with a warning about delays between junctions eight and nine on the M25. So an RDS radio is a pretty good first line of defence against traffic congestion, although there are a number of other gadgets.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see a flashing amber light. That must be my RAC Traffic Alert 1210. As a member of the RAC I can get the 1210 package for pounds 19.99, which also includes a Nokia digital phone. The little black crucifix-shaped 1210 unit runs on three AAA batteries and has an array of lights pointing to all points of the compass. It also beeps at you.

If the light furthest from the centre comes on, it means that the hold- up is more than two junctions away, or eight to 12 miles on an A road. If the middle light comes on, then the problem is up to two junctions away, or four to eight miles. The nearest light to the centre of the unit illuminates when the trouble is before the next junction, or up to four miles away on an A road. The lights also glow amber or red to signify delays of up to and beyond 25 minutes. The unit beeps three times when you join the network and the road ahead is clear, or five times if there is a problem up ahead.

The really clever part is when you use a Cellnet mobile phone. I did and it told me exactly where I was on the M25. It gave much more detailed information about the delay up ahead. By dialling 1, followed by the number of the motorway, in this case 3 for M3, I got up-to-the-minute information for that route. Dialling 0 put me in touch with an RAC Traffic Information Adviser, who told me about alternative routes.

Working closely with the RAC on all this is Traffic Master, the acknowledged market leader. The company has more than 7,000 sensors nationwide, which detect changes in vehicle speeds. When the average speed drops below 30mph, a signal is transmitted to Traffic Master's data centre and from there to vehicles equipped with one of its products.

The entry-level system is Traffic Master Freeway. Priced at pounds 79.99 plus an annual subscription charge of pounds 24, it relays live traffic information. A lot more sophisticated is the YQ, at pounds 149.99, with an annual subscription of pounds 110, which features a screen display. It allows the user to call up local motorway areas and pinpoint traffic problems. Traffic Master systems can be found as standard equipment in certain production models.

Oracle, a voice-based system designed to feed traffic information through car radios, was first installed by Vauxhall in 1996 on top-of-the-range GLS, SRI and CDX Vectra models. This year, all Citroen Xantias have a similar Oracle system as standard.

Imagine, though, having an in-car system which not only tells you about traffic problems, but also guides you out of them. From March, that becomes a reality. The new Jaguar S-Type is the first car in the world to have a fully integrated, on-board satellite navigation system, combined with live traffic information provided by Traffic Master.

David Martell, the company's chief executive, says: "In the face of ever- increasing levels of congestion, on-board driver information systems incorporating `intelligent' route guidance and traffic information will soon become essential equipment."

That was just the sort of equipment I needed to find the BBC's research and development complex, hidden in a south-London suburb. The BBC's Transport Protocol Experts Group (TPEG) is broadcasting a pilot travel information service on digital radio. Glyn Jones, managing editor, BBC Digital Radio, says: "TPEG is a personal travel service. It allows the BBC to broadcast more travel news than we could ever cram into the full 24 hours on a radio station, but your radio will sift it and only give you the traffic news that affects you."

It is RDS with knobs on, but at the moment the test broadcasts can only be picked up on digital radios, or certain in-car systems with expensive decoders. The BBC expects hardware manufacturers to latch onto TPEG and incorporate it into in-car navigation systems. So in the near future there will be no need to be stuck on the M25, or anywhere else for that matter.