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NYCDOT’s DriveSmart Technology Brings Intelligent Driving One Stop Closer

The technologies they’re putting into our cars nowadays seems hell bent on taking us out of the equation as quickly as possible. Lexuses (Lexi?) and Fords can parallel park by themselves. Volvos can tell you when some one is in your blind spot and you can now tell your Kia what music to play like its KITT’s more artistic cousin.  All these advances can be filed under the term “Driver Facing Technology” (DFT) because they are geared towards making you a better driver by eliminating or simplifying habits that involve a lot of spatial negotiations or acute awareness, and with the ubiquity of distracting technology hitting critical mass maybe making us less a part of the equation is a good thing.

That crop of research and development is all well and good but remains solipsistic, an important qualification when you consider most of our decisions are based on other drivers’ decisions. Driving, whether it’s in the city or the highway, is best imagined as a complicated system of interdependent actors, so when you add a technology that aids an individual driver you are not necessarily creating a more efficient system. To do that you need a technology that allows for feedback within the structure, a symphonic advance instead of a solo.

Currently, the major movements in that direction have come from the Federal government and from private industry. USDOT/RITA’s Connected Vehicles program is attempting to bring infrastructure and vehicles into closer harmony by developing technologies and applications that facilitate efficient congestion management through radio-frequency identification (RFID), easing the anxieties of privacy advocates and allowing for constant communication between cars and streets. Volvo has developed “vehicle platooning” where cars wirelessly follow lead drivers at constant speeds allowing drivers the option to take their mind off driving when they’re traveling long distances. There is an outlier though: the DriveSmart program currently under development by NYCDOT.

DriveSmart has a lot in common with the Connected Vehicles program; both are geared towards congestion management, so-called “eco-driving”, and information dissemination. However, where Connected Vehicles is going through a decade-long research and development program necessary for a national project, DriveSmart is allowed more flexibility in both policy and incubation because of its size relative to the Federal government.

There’s no doubt that New York is in dire need of advanced driver-side technology. If you’ve ever tried to navigate SoHo when commuters are heading back through the Holland Tunnel, or forgot that it was the Manhattan and not the Williamsburg Bridge that was under construction on a Saturday night, or wondered if the subway or that cute pedicab was a better option than a taxi, then you understand New York’s transportation problem has more than a few leaks to plug. But imagine for a second that you need to go downtown after a Saturday dinner at Taqueria y Fonda in Morningside Heights. You have your car, but it’s Saturday night it’s probably going to take you a while no matter what route you take—but are you sure? What separates DriveSmart from a simple GPS module is that it would supply you with not only real time traffic and route suggestions, but also predictive time and financial costs between modes and, if you’re the environmental type, the “green option” of travel.

It’s not that DriveSmart is going to solve every congestion problem in New York, nothing outside of a universal congestion charge or a manic pedestrian rights movement will ease the choking traffic in the City. But DriveSmart does begin to introduce drivers to the systemic nature of driving in a city, that your decisions affect other decisions the amalgam of which drives the extremely complex management technique present at NYCDOT. NYCDOT is also in the middle of a data -driven renaissance, spearheaded by the transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan; the city is beginning to discuss transportation systems in numbers instead of emotion. DriveSmart is the natural extension of that idea, the benefits of which will be staring you in the face as you speed around town.