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Google solves problem, sees opportunities

In San Francisco in 2007, I saw a Google shuttle bus with five or six people on it. I watched as the driver peered at a GPS unit and turned down a side street—a very narrow side street that buses avoid. I haven’t lived in San Francisco since 1991, and I didn’t think SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) was organized enough to offer personalized service. "Regular" buses in San Francisco ply the main streets ... sticking to routes and schedules oddly disconnected from the needs of those wanting to go "green" by riding public transport. In the City by the Bay, transport flexibility means a bicycle, shank’s ponies or a taxi. Forget automobiles. There’s no place to park, unless the parking gods smile on you.

I happened across a Google patent application named Transportation Routing. If you want to read the document yourself, its application number is US20060149461. You can download it from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office by pointing your browser to http://patft.uspto.gov/netahtml/PTO/search-adv.htm. (Pay close attention to the USPTO search syntax, please.)

Google’s engineers devised a system and method to operate a "smart" shuttle service for its employees. The invention allows a Googler to request a shuttle ride via a mobile phone using simple message service (SMS). The transportation routing system receives the request and matches the Googler’s location to the closest shuttle. The system figures out a route and wirelessly updates the shuttle driver’s GIS system and sends an SMS to the Googler with the time and coordinates for the pickup.

That invention doesn’t solve the famous traveling salesman problem. Google’s approach doesn’t have the jaw-dropping impact of the company’s work to reach beyond databases to dataspaces. And the patent application lacks the polish of the five patent applications that spell out Google’s potentially revolutionary Programmable Search Engine.

Take a look at one of the figures in the patent application (KMWorld, Vol 17, #5, Page 27). When I saw the diagram on this page, I thought that work on the invention was hammered out over lunch in the Google cafeteria with Tony Bennett crooning and with a napkin serving as a convenient creative canvas. When I wrote Dave Girouard, head of Google’s enterprise unit, he didn’t answer my e-mail, which is standard operating procedure for Google when I ask questions. Here’s the diagram. Judge for yourself.

This "napkin" invention—my description, not Google’s—contains several interesting components. In my opinion, no single element of this patent application is completely new. What’s unique is the combination of elements, which, as explained by Google, becomes a quite innovative invention. First, the inventors—Henry Rowley and Shumeet Baluja—incorporated two "smart" components into their invention. The first is a subsystem that is responsible for figuring out how to move the shuttle among the Googlers wanting rides. The second subsystem sucks in data about traffic, user information and values from the Navigation Point Generator and produces routes. Other components in the system notify the rider and the driver, generate log entries and perform other housekeeping chores.

The second surprise is that matching riders to shuttles is one use of the invention. The language of the patent application leaves the door open for Google to use the invention to route other types of traffic. Think trucks, airplanes, even data. Furthermore, the diagram’s napkin art shows the routing information moving from a base station to a satellite. The language of the patent application and the diagram clearly indicate that Google’s system and method for routing can operate on vessels, aircraft and satellites.

How does this invention fit into Google’s enterprise plans? Had Googler Dave Girouard answered my e-mail, I would have been able to include his response in this column. Alas, Google pretends I don’t exist. My solution to this radio silence is to use Google to find out what Google is doing.

A bit of sleuthing revealed that Google has extended its shuttle routing operation to its offices in Korea. This is useful information, but the most intriguing extension of Google’s transportation routing technology is the agreement with New Jersey, a state with one of the largest public transit systems in the United States.

Dubbed Google Transit, the new service displays departure and arrival data for individual travelers. Google Maps provides a graphic representation of the routes. NJ Transit’s Kennet Pringle said on March 17, 2008: "For visitors to the region or the occasional rider who is less familiar with New Jersey’s public transportation options, it gives them a starting point for learning about NJ Transit and is a key, too, for attracting new riders to our system."

Google’s Maps, transportation routing and personalization capabilities offer transportation agencies significant cost-reduction opportunities. Most bus routes are inflexible. As a result, many buses run empty or with a handful of riders or experience severe overcrowding. In Louisville, Ky., most transit authority buses run without passengers, wasting taxpayers’ money and incurring unnecessary costs.

Adding a flexible shuttle service to the NJ Transit system or to any transit authority wanting to deliver more efficient, flexible and economical public transport may make the Google service attractive. In fact, the potential for reducing pollution (going green) and slashing operating costs may make Google’s transportation capability an appetizing service to mass transit operators.

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