Notebook > Technology

Price patrols

Technology | Web sites are directing drivers to the cheapest gas stations in town

Issue: "Passing the Olympic torch," Sept. 4, 2004

With gas prices still high, many motorists are turning to the internet to find less-expensive fuel. Sites like GasBuddy, GasPriceWatch and others direct drivers to the cheapest stations in their towns.

Thousands of local spotters check out the gas signs in their neighborhoods and post prices to these sites. Visitors type in their zip codes to find the best prices at nearby stations. The difference is often 20 cents or more within a few blocks.

GasBuddy, a nonprofit network that started four years ago, combines over 170 sites that survey an average of 150,000 stations every week in the United States and Canada. About 270,000 people are signed up as volunteer gas-price reporters at sites like phillygasprices.com, wichitagasprices.com and miamigasprices.com. Another 50 sites are set to launch this fall.

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Even Microsoft has joined the gas-tracking game; MSN Autos offers a price tracker that examines 30,000 gas stations daily. GasPriceWatch.com, which is another for-profit service, reports having over 100,000 price spotters.

One problem with these services, however, is that they have no guarantee of accuracy. Since volunteers dominate these sites and prices change constantly, prices posted may be wrong. Still, these sites can be useful as an estimate for finding the cheapest gas station in an area.

The need for speed

American internet use reached a major milestone this summer, as the number of people using high-speed lines slightly outnumbered those using dial-up connections. Nielsen/NetRatings reported that broadband usage reached 51 percent in July, surging up from 38 percent a year ago.

Broadband's takeoff may be partially due to aggressive marketing by cable and DSL providers who offer low introductory rates to convert users from dial-up. It was also undoubtedly helped by the rise of low-cost wireless home networks, which make high-speed access more flexible for families and home offices.

This explosion comes as providers make their fast internet-access plans even faster. SBC, for example, plans to offer speeds up to 3.0 Mbps for downloads and up to 416 Kbps for uploads at a $36.99 per month rate. Cox cable announced up to 4 Mbps download and 512 Kbps upload for $49.95 per month.

Nielsen reported that its survey of 40,000 users shows a demographic divide among broadband users. Penetration is highest among the young (the 18-to-20 age group is at 59 percent), while only 34 percent of those 65 and older use cable and DSL.

Bits & Megabytes

  • America's movie and music industries are considering their options after a federal appeals court ruled that makers of two popular file-sharing programs, Grokster and StreamCast, are not liable for the copyrighted works that pirates distribute online. The developers escaped Napster's outcome largely because they don't use central servers that direct users to copyrighted material. The ruling may push the major record labels to step up efforts at suing pirates; of the over 3,400 users targeted to date, at least 600 settled for roughly $3,000 each.
  • Japan's Seiko Epson is developing a tiny flying robot that follows wireless directions sent by computer. The invention is 3.35 inches tall, resembles a toy helicopter, and uses a gyro-sensor and a low-resolution digital camera. The makers foresee real world uses for the robot, such as in rescue and surveillance.
  • Priceline.com and Ramada.com settled one of the first major legal disputes involving the Americans with Disabilities Act on the internet, promising New York state regulators that they would make their sites more accessible to the blind and visually impaired. This follows a two-year investigation into whether websites conform to laws requiring all "places of public accommodation" and all "goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" be made accessible to the disabled. The sites neither face any charges nor made admissions of guilt.

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