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April 28, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Navigating by phone Navigating by phone (April 28, 2004)

Startup hopes software can empower drivers, ease Bay Area's traffic gridlock

by Dana Green

A new Palo Alto company, Zipdash, is building a business around one of the Bay Area's most gridlocked problems: Rush-hour traffic.

Zipdash software allows cell-phone users with Global Positioning Satellite systems (GPS) to view a map of how fast traffic is moving on Bay Area highways.

James Hong, a frequent commuter, first used the program when he hit game-day traffic near the Oakland Coliseum on his regular commute from Berkeley to San Jose. He checked Zipdash on his phone -- which showed traffic speeds by red, yellow or green arrows -- and was able to jump onto Interstate 580 to avoid the Interstate 880 snarl.

After that, he began checking it whenever he hit the highways. Often, he will delay his trip if the freeways look jammed.

"I check it religiously," Hong said. "It's valuable when you're not expecting traffic to be bad and it is."

Zipdash works by gathering location information of individual cell-phone users, tracking data from taxi and trucking fleets, and utilizing existing highway sensors.

Tracking the whereabouts of cell-phone users has been a controversial issue in recent years, however. Federal mandates enabling law-enforcement and emergency-response personnel access to cell-phone locations have come under attack for undermining civil liberties.

But Mark Crady, who founded Zipdash with colleagues Michael Chu and Dipendra Nigram, said that the company has gone to great lengths to ensure that a breach of privacy isn't an issue.

"We can't access anything about you -- not your name, not your phone number, nothing. We could require people to login and give us some identifying information, but we've decided against that to ensure people's complete privacy," Crady said.

GPS hardware on the phone delivers instantaneous information -- including latitude, longitude, speed and heading -- to Zipdash's server. If a driver has opened the application, then location information is being exchanged.

According to a recent transportation study, the Bay Area is now second in the nation after Los Angeles in hours lost each year to peak commuting -- a fact that Crady, Chu and Nigram are banking on.

Crady said the most valuable service Zipdash provides is reducing frustration when a driver is stuck for an unknown amount of time. The information gives commuters a sense of control, he said.

Crady and Chu, who worked at Intel and Palm and as consultants in the wireless industry, and Nigram, previously with AOL, formed Zipdash in 2003.

The first two tried a prototype of the software in 1999, hooking a phone up to a laptop and placing the setup in a car.

"It was an accident waiting to happen," Chu said.

Although the cell-phone technology has vastly improved safety, not all the kinks are worked out. Namely, encouraging commuters to check their cell phones while driving could be, to say the least, a business liability. Crady and Chu are currently in discussions with Toyota to create a voice-based prototype that would insert into dashboards.

"If you're distracted, it's a problem," Crady admitted. "My wife doesn't like me to use it when my kids are in the back seat."

Crady and Chu are presently focused on expanding their service. Currently, Zipdash is only available on Nextel phones; Crady and Chu are hoping to forge deals with other major carriers within the coming year. They believe that, in light of Federal Communications Commission requirements, GPS-enabled cell phones are the wave of the future.

"The long-term technology picture is for all carriers to have GPS technology," Crady said.

Although the program is limited to the Bay Area for now, the company is expecting to provide the service in Seattle within months, and are hoping to go national in the future.

"We've had people in other areas say we have to get this service up and going in their area," Crady said. "Traffic is such a huge issue."

The Palo Alto company is hoping that its software, in some small way, will help ease traffic woes for the Bay Area's road-weary commuters.

"When this takes off, there's a lot of potential for reducing traffic problems," Crady said. "It would be great to have some sort of impact." For more about Zipdash, visit Assistant Editor Jocelyn Dong contributed to this article.

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