By Arlene Weintraub Traffic in Los Angeles is sort of like your least favorite relative at a holiday get-together -- always annoying and always there. I've been on the freeway at midnight on Saturday, stuck in traffic that I would normally expect to see only during Friday-afternoon rush hour. And the folks at my local news-radio stations aren't much help. They update the traffic scene every 10 minutes, but they rarely have enough time to report on all the worst tie-ups.
Microsoft (MSFT) has come to the rescue with a series of upgrades to its MSN Autos site, which hosts one of Redmond's earliest forays into Web services. Its My Car service offers real-time traffic alerts for 65 major cities, delivered via text message to any mobile phone, pager, or PDA.
NO TOLL. After signing up online (autos.msn.com), you punch in information about your mobile device and carrier, dictate your preferences -- what days and times you want to receive the alerts, which regions of your chosen city you'd like to monitor, and so forth -- and voila, the alerts start streaming in. What's more, My Car gives you a personalized Web page that you can visit anytime to change your alert settings, and to get information and reminders tailored to you and your car. And you pay MSN nothing for the service.
I started with My Car in October. Aside from a few glitches I've encountered (more on that later), I'm quite happy with how the site has enhanced the 10 or so hours per week I spend on the road with my three-year-old Saturn sports coupe. MSN isn't the only site offering personalized service for road warriors. Autobytel, for example, has a service called My Garage, and Yahoo! Autos also allows users to set up Web pages for their cars. But MSN's service is by far the most comprehensive and practical of the bunch.
The My Car site alone is enough to keep you and your car humming along. On top of traffic reports, it reminds you when to get your oil changed, gives you the most up-to-date Blue Book value of your car, and provides links to dozens of research tools to help you find a new one.
VIRTUAL TUNEUP. It also posts a real-time traffic map -- customized to your Zip Code -- that uses flashing red icons to show you where the worst tie-ups are. And here's a neat trick: One particularly cool service tells you which gas stations in your neighborhood have the lowest prices. MSN continues to add new features. Soon to come: a tool that allows users to schedule service appointments with their car dealers online.
Still, the thing that truly sets My Car apart from the competition is the Alerts feature. You can instruct the service to send you bulletins for up to five regions of your city, and specify what days and times you would like them to arrive. That ability to tailor the info is important: If your cellular carrier charges you airtime fees to receive text messages, as many do, you don't want to be paying for information about roads you never take. With My Car, you can also choose to receive news about high, medium, or low-level traffic incidents. And you can instruct the service to send the alerts to your computer by e-mail or MSN Messenger.
It takes some experimentation to find exactly the right mix of alert criteria. At first, I chose only to receive the high-level alerts for five regions of Los Angeles. But I hardly received any alerts, and often found myself in traffic tie-ups I wished I could have avoided. When I added medium-grade alerts to the mix, I got too many messages.
DETOUR PATROL. So I narrowed the geographical scope to the three areas of L.A. I visit most often. Perfect. The alerts are short, but detailed enough to give you a good sense of whether or not you need to start looking for an alternate route. A recent example: "Long Beach Fwy. (710) northbound at Artesia Fwy. (91), accident involving a tractor-trailer." I steered clear of that road.
Ideally, My Car would send me a second text message with a turn-by-turn detour that gets me to my destination without encountering the overturned tractor-trailer. Ah...such are the dreams of weary drivers everywhere. For now, I'm happy to settle for just knowing about traffic trouble spots before it's too late to avoid them. That service, plus the nifty feature-rich site that goes with it, makes MSN's My Car a worthy backseat driver. Weintraub covers technology for BusinessWeek from Los Angeles