Lileks: A MnDOT app that promises happy trails for all drivers

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 4, 2013 - 7:36 PM

MnDOT will soon release an app for your smartphone. Why would I need that? some ask. There’s helpful traffic information on the radio. Oh, yes. So helpful.

“Things are slowing up on the highway you’re not on, just before the intersection you never use; meanwhile, 35W is slow-and-go from 46th to 54th, then bump-and-nudge from 54th to the Crosstown, brake-and-lurch to 76th, dine-and-dash to 94th and live-and-learn after that. It’s thickening up on 100, loosening like phlegm in the last days of a cold on northbound 35 between Roseville and Duluth.

“Crews are on the scene of a jackknifed semi that spilled a load of jackknives in Eden Prairie. Absolutely nothing about what to expect on the way to the airport, which is where you’re headed now. And that’s a look at your traffic, based on a fax I found behind the desk from 2011.”

I’ve never used radio traffic news in my life. You might as well give me the weather on Venus.

Apps are better. You get a red line telling you where the traffic’s bad. You go elsewhere.

But where do they get their data? I got on the highway the other day, having been assured by the All-Seeing Google that things were flowing like corpuscles through a newborn’s arteries, and within seconds it was like the circulatory system of someone whose diet consisted of Paula Deen books fried in butter. I checked the Apple Maps: no warnings there, either.

But MnDOT knew, I’ll bet. So I’ll trust their traffic app above all others — if it uses my location and speaks text alerts about upcoming conditions, and can bookmark my usual routes and give me information at a glance before I head out. Because otherwise, it wouldn’t be all that useful.

Then again, do we want it to know our location? Let’s say it collects information on your position — purely for informational purposes, of course; no personal data is stored or collected, aside from being collected and stored.

I mean, the app knows it’s registered to a phone with a particular ID number on the cellular network, which can be cross-referenced with account information to be connected with the license-plate database, if they wanted to, but why would they? If …

Hold on, phone’s buzzing — huh. Text: “Because we can.”

Well, that was odd.

Anyway, it could possibly know you’d approached the meter on the ramp and taken a rather … elastic approach toward the concept of “Stopping.” If you’re heading down an empty ramp, and the meter’s cycling through red-yellow-green, and it’s RED when you hit it, chances are you blow right through because you regard the green light you saw 6 seconds ago as your personal green light. No one else claimed it. No one else was there.

It’s possible they could use all this technology to send you a ticket, but that’s crazy paranoid talk.

Other features I would like:

• A pothole depth finder, so you can find out whether it makes sense to try to climb out or wait for a ladder.

• Social-media integration, so I can take a picture of a guardrail in need of repair and post it to Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Vine and Google+, where people will have the opportunity to “like” the picture before realizing no one cares and we are just wasting our lives with this stuff.

• The app would make your phone vibrate when you drift over the line on the right, just like rumble strips. This would require precise GPS data, and would appear at first glance to be absolutely useless, because it’s not like you don’t have two eyes capable of discerning that you’re heading toward the ditch, but you know how it is when you turn around to tell the kids to STOP ARGUING and you forget for a moment you’re hurtling along at 65 miles per hour.

• A game for the kids to play while you’re stuck in traffic. It would be like Hangman, except it would be called Flagman. You’d choose letters to complete this sentence:

F_NES AR_ DO_BLE IN W_RK Z_NES

Hey, kids! Guess all the letters before the Flagman is hanged! Note: Hanging the Flagman constitutes a threat against a public employee and is punishable by law.

• A short-term memory rearranger. This would allow you to hold the phone up to your head when you’re in a construction zone and collect all the negative thoughts you have about your inconvenience. When the project is finished and the road is clean and broad, the app will erase all memories of your angst, as well as your recollections of what a teeth-banging, boneshaker of a potholed mess it was before they fixed it. You’ll drive along as if you’d forgotten completely all the work that went into making it smooth.

On second thought, that’s not necessary. We manage to forget that on our own.

 

jlileks@startribune.com 612-673-7858

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