An RFID solution to rush hour headaches?

IBM says system of windshield transponders has helped Stockholm, Sweden, reduce traffic congestion by 25 percent. Photos: RFID traffic reducer

Amanda Termen
Amanda Termen covers innovations in technology.
Amanda Termen
3 min read
An IBM traffic system being tested in Stockholm, Sweden, reduced rush hour congestion by 25 percent during its first month of operation, and Big Blue wants to bring the technology to the states.

"We are already seeing such good results that I think this will convince other cities to take a look at this," said Peggy Kennelly, vice president of IBM On Demand Innovation Services. According to Kennelly, the results were made possible by new technology that makes the system highly automatic.

The system revolves around a concept that would be political suicide in many parts of the world. Under the program, Stockholm charges drivers to be on the road, and payment is made through RFID tags. Still, large metropolitan areas in other parts of the globe are increasingly looking at ways to clamp down on congestion and pollution, either by charging fees or through restrictive regulations. In New Delhi, for instance, diesel buses are prohibited. And drivers in London must pay tolls when entering high-congestion areas.

RFID traffic reducer

The IBM systems could also be used to automate payments on toll roads in Massachusetts, Portugal and other places. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., are already discussing congestion pricing solutions to their traffic problems.

In Stockholm, car owners are being encouraged to glue a RFID (radio frequency identification) transponder onto the inside of the windshield. When drivers enter or leave the city, electronic register stations along the road pick up radio signals from the transponder, and a central computer system charges the car owner's bank account.

Cars that lack the RFID tag are photographed by cameras along the road. The license plate is translated by an optical character recognition system and is compared to the national driver's license database. The driver can then pay the fee, either through the Internet or at a 7-Eleven store.

It's that character-recognition system that's made the trial so successful, according to Kennelly. The system involves new technology that takes advantage of sophisticated computer algorithms to identify plate numbers in situations where it would have been difficult to do so before--through both dirt and darkness, automatically, without the need for human involvement.

"It allows a very high rate of recognition, and so a very high rate of automation. It allows people to drive through without adding long lines to a toll booth," Kennelly said, "The city is also able to charge the tolls at specific times of the day, when you want to manage the traffic flow."

Stockholm drivers are charged 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The fee varies, coming to a high during peak traffic hours. During January, the first month of the seven-month trial, peak-hour traffic was reduced by 100,000 cars, and 40,000 more people used public transportation. The city will vote on whether to keep the system once the trial wraps up.

"From an international perspective, it is important to not only have economic growth, but environmental growth," Stockholm Mayor Annika Billstrom said in a statement. "Many cities have serious environmental issues. We are now doing this trial with a modern, exciting, new system, which the rest of Europe and the world can learn from."

The human factor might be harder to work on: Not everyone is willing to let go of the wheel, Kennelly said. "This requires a culture change; it requires people to understand the benefits, and it requires a mass transit system to implement this. But the technology is ready for it," she said.

That human factor is actually a concept being bandied about more at IBM these days. In conjunction with its push into services, Big Blue is beginning to conduct more research into human behavior and social sciences. The hope is that the company can better understand how large organizations function and apply technology to make them more efficient.

If it sounds odd that IBM is getting into what many in academia call "soft" sciences, you're not the first to think that. But the company says new fields tend to seem flimsy at first.

"A long time ago, people didn't think there was science in computer science. If you were a member of the IBM Academy, you were in hardware. There was no deep intellectual depth in software," Paul Horn, senior vice president of research at IBM, said in an interview last year. "Now people say the same thing about services."