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Road Test: SUNA Traffic Channel

Review by Feann Torr - 9/September/2008

SUNA Traffic Channel Real-Time Traffic System
We used the Ford Falcon's satellite navigation
system to road test the SUNA traffic channel

SUNA Traffic Channel Real-Time Traffic System
This map shows the 'full' and 'fringe' SUNA traffic
channel coverage in the greater Sydney region

SUNA Traffic Channel Real-Time Traffic System
The triangles represent traffic incidents across
the city, and can be clicked on to view details
of the type of incident and if there's any delays

SUNA Traffic Channel Real-Time Traffic System
This image from the Ford Falcon's satellite
navigation shows the SUNA traffic channel
warning the driver of upcoming traffic delays

It's Thursday morning, you're driving to work and the sun's shining. The working week is almost over, and the traffic is surprisingly good.

Then you see the gridlock ahead - a sea of red brake lights - and hit the anchors, trying to keep calm as a Barina cuts you off for a three second advantage...

I'm not saying I personally get road rage, but after only a few weeks of sitting in traffic twice a day for extended periods of time I have to admit that the frustration factor builds.

Indeed, some of the biggest issues facing motorists today are fuel prices, sustainable transportation, and traffic congestion.

In Australia over the past three years there have been almost one million new cars sold per annum, adding greatly to the number of cars on the road. 

For major cities like Melbourne, Brisbane, and Sydney, this means peak hour chaos on a daily basis and sometimes the weekends aren't much better either. 

We recently tested the new SUNA traffic channel integrated into a Ford Falcon G6 large car, and to call this real-time traffic system useful would be an understatement of significant proportion.

Simply put, the SUNA Traffic Channel advises you of delays and average traffic speeds and works in tandem with selected satellite navigation systems to suggest alternate routes.

So instead of blindly driving into traffic congestion, the system alerts you in advance and can suggest a different approach. 

You can literally sit in the driveway before leaving for work, plug in the route you plan to take and you will be advised as to the traffic conditions ahead. It's a very useful stress reliever, believe you me.

We drove the Falcon G6 in a range of traffic conditions and found the system to be surprisingly accurate in Melbourne city and the surrounding suburbs, and even as far out as the Surf Coast to the west of the city.

When you don't enter a route into the system, it can still update you to conditions ahead and is far more detailed than TV or radio station broadcasts.

For example, as we were driving into the Web Wombat offices in the Melbourne CBD from the Northern suburbs, we thought we'd take City Link, a tolled freeway with no traffic lights and a 100km speed limit.

It's usually the best route to travel in terms of getting to work on time, so we plugged in the route and soon discovered that a truck had crashed on the Bolte Bridge, causing big delays.

Better yet, the SUNA traffic system told us exactly where the spill had occurred, how long the delay would be, the stretch of road most affected, what the average speed along that section of road was (10km/h - not quite the 90km/h we were hoping for), and the estimated time of arrival in the city centre along that route. 

Suffice to say it didn't look good, so we decided to take an alternate route along Nicholson Street instead, which has a much slower speed limit of 60km/h, but a higher average speed than City Link's clogged-up 10km/h.

On the weekend we took the car out past Geelong, and while heading down the highway were informed that in a few kilometres time there was "road works for 0.8km" and that the speed limit was reduced as a result. Not a make or break issue as we were just cruising down to Bells Beach to check out the surf, but it's nice to be informed nonetheless.

As well as telling you what's going on along your route, it also has various warnings and updates you can scroll through and select from the menu, good for passengers who are easily amused!

So while we were almost at the beach, with a crisp northerly wind whetting our appetites for some 5-foot kegs, we could scroll through a list of incidents and saw that traffic was slow on Collins Street in the middle of the city, about 100 kilometres away. Saturday traffic can be a killer...

The information provided on all traffic incidents is fairly detailed, and Ford's sat nav system even provides voice overs for all the information such as any delays or changes in traffic conditions, all in real time. Keep you're eyes on the road while getting traffic updates is a great feature.

How does it work? 

Intelematics, a Melbourne company that is owned by the RACV (Royal Automobile Club of Victoria), developed the system which collects data from the same pressure sensors under the road that activate traffic lights.

It gathers information from almost all traffic lights and also the sensors on freeways and highways and then uses specialist 'traffic flow modelling technology' to crunch all the data and provide exact details of delays, incidents, even weather conditions if they affect traffic. The details the system provides includes these parameters:

  • Description of the incident or the cause

  • The location of the area affected

  • Length of the delay

  • Options for detour

  • When you will arrive

According to the SUNA traffic channel's creator, "virtually all urban (and many regional) signalised intersections are networked to central traffic light control systems in each state" which are then used to generate the real time traffic updates.

All this information is updated every three minutes, and is broadcast via encrypted FM frequencies across the land so that if you're satellite navigation system is enabled, it will pick up the traffic information. And no, it doesn't interfere with normal radio broadcasts so you can still listen to your favourite radio stations.

The SUNA traffic channel also has access to information from traffic control centres, from VicRoads in Victoria for instance, that use their own cameras, data logging sensors and so forth to deliver up to date traffic analysis.

The result of all this information is an almost centimetre perfect real-time map of traffic flow, and it makes car travel during peak hour and through high density areas such as major cities less stressful.

At present, the SUNA traffic channel covers only the three major eastern cities, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. More cities will be brought online in the next few years.

Overall: 4/5

Australia finally has it's own real-time traffic update system, and it works a treat. I like it a lot - it's pretty much flawless but if you don't spend a lot of time driving in the city or in congested parts of town, it may be of limited value.

The biggest factor when considering this system is which satellite navigation system to use.

At the time of writing, Ford was only car company in Australia offering the feature with its $2,290 sat nav system (the system we evaluated), but there are a few standalone systems from Garmin, Pioneer, Mio, Navway and the likes that have the SUNA traffic channel enabled.

It's a very handy system that piggy backs enabled GPS navigation systems and if you spend a lot of time commuting to work it will be an invaluable tool in saving time, fuel, and even money in some cases.

The SUNA traffic channel won't alleviate Thursday morning congestion, but it is an efficient method by which to avoid the commuter crush and is a sneak peak into the future of traffic management.

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