Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike;
They've all come to look for America!
-- Simon & Garfunkel, "America," 1968

A small airplane landed on the New Jersey Turnpike today, putting a fresh spin on that old Simon & Garfunkel tune. The two pilots and traffic reporter who were on board are OK, The Associated Press reports, but their traffic reports for a Philadelphia news outlet are taking a breather.

Luckily, we will soon be at a point where there's no need for intrepid reporters to risk their very lives to report on traffic conditions -- and many other facts of urban life. Data collection may sound like a simple task, but the crew of that plane would probably tell you different -- and it's no mean feat to replace human judgment with hands-off computer programs.

Many household names are working on ways to collect traffic data automatically, then put the data flow through another automated process, and end up with usable traffic reports without any human input. IBM (NYSE:IBM) and General Electric (NYSE:GE) are at the forefront of these initiatives, joined by perhaps less obvious participants like TIBCO Software (NASDAQ:TIBX) and Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). During my time in tech support for railway giant CSX (NYSE:CSX), I saw firsthand how incredibly complex the traffic management systems are -- and that's just for keeping a few thousand trains running smoothly. Millions of cars, motorcycles, buses, and rickshaws present whole new challenges.

And traffic data is just the beginning of what technology companies are looking to tackle. Markets are opening up worldwide for seemingly mundane tasks like monitoring and managing electric power grids and water systems. Again, the giants of technology are turning their eyes to these new horizons.

I mean, IBM is working on food technology -- not what you'd expect from an old typewriter and punch-card manufacturer. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) funds research on electric cars and owns one of the largest solar panel installations in the world. Next-generation heroes are found in some unlikely places.

Companies with the vision and drive to push for a smarter planet (an IBM tagline) will be around for decades, morphing to meet the needs of every generation. IBM and GE have been masters of this strategy for a long time, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Google managing my power meter in 30 years.

Whether or not it’s obvious to the average investor, these initiatives are pushing technology firms into new areas, expanding their growth beyond our computers and into our everyday lives -- how we consume power, how we eat, how we drive.

There are a lot of technology stories out there, like cloud computing and smartphones; this subplot could seem lost in the shuffle. However, it has the potential to change the nature of not only newcomers like Google, but stodgy old tech players like IBM. Could IBM’s services division one day be known as much for its work in managing electrical grids as for large enterprise systems? Keep an eye on this one, dear Fool.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.