Visiting Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., three years ago, UA professor Yi-Chang Chiu and his daughter experienced the unbearable lines for rides that theme-park goers are all too familiar with.
But Chiu utilized the park’s solution of express lanes, where customers can take a ticket with a return time for the ride. By being flexible and scheduling the day among other rides, visitors can come back and skip the long line.
“So I said, OK, why can’t we do this for traffic then?” said Chiu, a University of Arizona associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics.
Seeing an opportunity, Chiu created a mobile application that can help drivers nationwide avoid traffic and reduce congestion.
The free app, known as Smartrek, has advanced traffic prediction and vehicle-routing technology that can help drivers get to a destination more efficiently, and it offers a points-based incentive program for drivers who change their plans to help reduce congestion.
Smartrek is scheduled to go live early this week with pilot programs in Phoenix and Los Angeles.
“We are hoping to get through all the final hurdles, tie up all the loose ends … it’s going to be very, very soon,” Chiu said.
He said that that with more financial support for his company, Metropia Inc., the app will be available in Tucson by early next year.
example of pouring rice
While Smartrek undergoes some fine-tuning, Chiu shows his classes a video that demonstrates the problem his app aims to solve.
As rice sifts through a tube into a beaker at a normal-to-fast pouring rate, the rice will back up in the tube and sift slowly into the beaker. However, if the rice is poured in slower intervals, there is no back-up and the rice goes into the beaker smoothly.
“We as commuters … we are part of the problem, the congestion, and also are a part of the solution,” Chiu said.
Smartrek focuses on alleviating congestion by encouraging some drivers to change their departure times and routes, while most navigation apps focus on laying a convenient route from A to B.
Other apps teach users to solely beat the traffic, which means they help drivers outsmart others.
“But we are trying to say, ‘Let’s work together and solve the problem together,’” Chiu said.
Users can connect to Facebook and Twitter, where they can choose to share their travel plans in the world of social media.
The app is organized in two areas. One area of the screen includes a map with a user’s location. The other area is a sidebar with various options such as “Plan a trip,” “Go home,” or “Go to work.”
A user can plan a trip with a start and end location that will create a few different routes. Depending on the route, there is a list of different departure times that include estimated arrival times. Once a route is selected, Smartrek shows how long it will take to get to the destination depending on the departure time.
“The app actually can tell me how long it’s going to take leaving at a future time,” Chiu said. “Every other app just says ‘OK, this is how long it takes right now’.”
If a user has to leave during a rush hour, the app may ask him to avoid freeways and give an alternate route.
Once a time and route are selected, the user hits a “reserve” button. Smartrek will record the planned trip and remind the user 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The trip will start and GPS will turn on, recording the driver’s current location to match it to the reserved route.
Drivers that take the reserved time and route are rewarded with points. The more flexible a driver is to leave at a less-congested hour, the more points he or she will receive.
So, a driver could depart for a destination at 10 a.m. and receive 89 points, or leave at 4 p.m. and receive 13 points.
“We found less than 40 percent of drivers never change departure time,” Chiu said. “That means more than 60 percent of drivers have a certain degree of freedom or flexibility that can change their departure time, and that’s a very exciting discovery.”
Another feature includes an alert mode in which Smartrek can access the driver’s phonebook and notify someone he or she is driving, for example, to a work meeting.
The app also will pick up on everyday mishaps that could affect a planned trip. If an accident affects a reserved route, Smartrek can create alternate routes and alert the driver.
“We want to help you beforehand, before you’re in the congestion,” Chiu said.
Participating drivers are rewarded in two ways, Chiu said.
First, the driver will experience reduced travel time and less traffic by using a better route — according to Chiu, an average of 20 percent of Smartrek users save on travel time.
Second, drivers receive tangible rewards like a Starbucks or Amazon gift card, or awards specifically set up for a particular city.
Rewards may include the idea of converting the app’s points to toll credit for cities that have toll roads.
Chiu also wants to try and get gas companies on board so users nationwide can redeem their points for gas cards, though Chiu acknowledged that will take some time to set up.
Metropia plans to get its revenues from advertising, including local merchant discount programs, and fees for setting up the system for each city, Chiu said.
3 years in making
Chiu has been working in the traffic industry since 1995, but Smartrek has been in the making for about three years.
After receiving his Ph.D., Chiu came to the UA as a professor in 2006. He went to UA officials with his idea of Smartrek in January 2011.
“UA was the seed that was able to jumpstart the whole thing,” Chiu said.
From there, Chiu built a prototype and the UA filed a patent and encouraged him to form a company to license the technology. Chiu’s family friends helped pay for production, and students helped with coding.
In 2011, Chiu won second place at Startup Weekend Tucson, where entrepreneurs build a prototype product or service over a weekend and present their business plans to a panel of judges who pick the top three most effective plans.
Justin Williams, chairman and founder of Startup Tucson, said Metropia’s use of incentives to change driver behavior was a creative solution that other traffic apps can’t match.
“They clearly figured that out,” Williams said. “It’s been a spectacular success.”
The Arizona Center for Innovation, a tech-oriented business incubator at the UA Science and Technology Park, provided Chiu with coaching and mentoring and helped raise awareness of the company in the community.
Corey Smith, entrepreneur in residence at the center and Metropia’s mentor, said it was clear that it is far more sophisticated than existing apps or using Google maps to estimate travel times.
The Smartrek trials in Phoenix and Los Angeles are a key step for the company, he said.
“Expressing interest to deploy the product and manage their traffic, that’s a big deal,” Smith said.
The funding that helped Smartrek launch includes money from six cities, which he declined to name, and a grant from the Federal Highway Administration.
Chiu is also writing a National Science Foundation proposal for Smartrek that will help this app reach other cities.
Smartrek hopes to reach a total of five cities by the end of this year and 25 cities in 2014.