Cool but impractical driving hack

Google Maps provides real-time traffic information along your route by by counting the number of cell phones in use along that stretch of road, which suggests that you could fool Google by loading up a large number of phones and bringing them with you. This guy is claiming to have demonstrated that by filling a little red wagon with 99 cell phones, impersonating a traffic jam, and trundling along roads that are relatively empty of cars.

I don’t know if I believe it, and the video doesn’t show it. I mean, he does show screens from Google Maps that light up red as he walks along, so I can believe that he’s exposing the algorithm, but I doubt that it would have a particularly strong effect on traffic — those streets are empty because of the time of day that he chose to record it. How many people diligently plan their commute by checking for traffic flow, and have a set of alternative routes? How many would use the evidence of their eyes, that that street over there is obviously clear of cars, to decide where to go?

I don’t count because out here, a traffic jam is when more than two cars are waiting at a stop sign.

If it does work, I’d expect rich people to load up on cell phones in their cars just to discourage others from following their route. I could imagine Elon Musk thinking this was a clever idea. It’s more practical than boring tunnels everywhere you want to go, anyway.


  1. lasius says

    These roads in Berlin are indeed often quite empty, and I think they were chosen because of that (and the fact that the Berlin Google headquarters are located there).

    Also to be considered a traffic jam I would think the phones would have to move at a relatively slow pace, so just filling your sports car with 100 phones in navigation mode would probably not work unless you drive at walking speeds.

  2. Dr Marcus Hill Ph.D. (arguing from his own authority) says

    Also, if you’re navigating in an unfamiliar city, you just turn on Google Maps and follow its directions. If it thinks there’s a traffic jam on one route and sends you another way, all you’ll notice (if anything) is a little greyed out route with a “5 minutes slower” tag.

  3. says

    I concur with what lasius said about the determination being speed dependant.

    My twice a week long commute to the office has three viable alternate routes so I do check the options in Google Maps before starting out. When I’m traveling at normal highway speeds in bumper to bumper traffic it does not show slow traffic or a jam. It only changes from green to orange when the speed is about 1/2 to 3/4 of normal highway speed. The route becomes red and it searches for alternate routes only when the speed is about 1/4 normal speed or less.

  4. says

    Creative, but I suspect this “hack” would be most effective in a future era of self driving cars and trucks. I’ll file this away for future use later…

  5. OverlappingMagisteria says

    How many people diligently plan their commute by checking for traffic flow, and have a set of alternative routes?

    People don’t diligently plan their commute because the GPS does it for them. GPS apps will take into account the current traffic to find the fastest way and will route you away from traffic. My wife often uses Waze to get to work since she deals with traffic a lot and it’ll tell her what it thinks the best route is.

    The way that guy does it, it wouldn’t have much of an effect since he’s going down small back-roads that are unlikely to be part of anyone’s commute. But if you walk a wagon of phones on a sidewalk of a larger route it might be effective.

    I’m not sure if loading a bunch of phones in a car would really work either. At best, it would show a lot of traffic after you’ve already driven past. It might clear out traffic after the fact, but it won’t do anything for you. But the GPS apps don’t just track how many phones are on the road, but also how fast they are moving. So they would seeing many phones on the same road, but all moving at a decent speed. I’m guessing their algorithms would interpret that as a strong indicator of low traffic (“I’m getting a lot of reports of cars traveling 65 MPH on that road. Must be clear!”)

    I suppose if you’re an evil rich guy, you could hire someone to walk along your route before your commute with a wagon full of phones. That might do the trick.

  6. stroppy says

    “It’s more practical than boring tunnels everywhere you want to go, anyway.”

    Hang on… Tunnels are cool!
    Norway leads the way:

    Dream tunnels
    Floating tunnels
    Ship tunnels
    Cycling tunnels

  7. John Small Berries says

    How many people diligently plan their commute by checking for traffic flow, and have a set of alternative routes?

    raises hand

    After having moved to a large city, I’ve learned to check the current drive time starting about half an hour before I think I need to leave to go somewhere, if I have to be there by a certain time. (After being late for a couple of doctors’ appointments, I got into the habit of doing this regularly.)

    But I don’t need to work out a set of alternative routes, because as OverlappingMagisteria has mentioned, GPS apps will do the work of finding the quickest route for you (and usually well before you’re in sight of any particular street, so “the evidence of [your] eyes” doesn’t even have a chance to come into play).

  8. rrhain says

    Yeah, you don’t live in Southern California. We measure distance in time. It isn’t so much how far away a place is as it is how long it takes to get there. And that will depend upon time of day, time of year, and which direction you’re going. I live in San Diego and regularly go to visit my friends in Orange County. Going up the 5 on a Saturday afternoon means I’ll hit some traffic around North County, maybe some when I get to San Clemente. But those coming south from OC into San Diego? Heaven help them. They’ll be stuck there for quite some time.
    I work downtown which is only about 5 miles away…
    …assuming I take the 163. But if something has happened on the 163 South, I’d be better off trying my luck on the 5 or even surface streets.
    So yeah…check that traffic map. The problem is that the Sirius XM traffic update is usually too slow to get the update so that by the time it has the traffic, I’m already in the traffic.

  9. unclefrogy says

    all that is well and good but I fear always going to some computer program for directions might have a negative effect on being able to read a map.
    I like the ability look up maps of anywhere and do street view to practice driving to familiarize myself with the look of the route.
    the big problem with driving is time I live in L.A. as well and have learned to allow plenty of time better early and wait then rush. but I do not punch a clock others have different problems.
    uncle frogy

  10. susans says

    I also live in Southern California and can confirm that we do indeed measure distance in time. Distance is irrelevant; we are used to driving, AFAIK, routes to work, and to visit friends and family that would be considered excessive in many parts of the country, but are normal here. For example, my mother lives 38 miles from me and it can take 1-3 hours each way depending on traffic, but she is old and has Alzheimer’s, so visiting is not optional. My visits are planned according to peak/non-peak traffic.