The Naysayer Traffic Jam

By Carmen Nobel Print this article Print

New York, London, Seoul and other major cities are desperate to eliminate traffic gridlock. Congestion fees may provide relief, but Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase believes she has the perfect wireless solution. 

The Naysayer Traffic Jam

IBM is the arguable frontrunner in the field of traffic-congestion technology, winning rights to deploy and operate the systems in London and Stockholm. Both cities use an enforcement system in which multiple cameras take pictures of every vehicle’s license plate to record its presence in the congestion zone.

Payment methods vary—drivers can pay via a Web portal, SMS text message, phone kiosks or at convenience stores—but neither city sports an automatic debit system. The cameras record a vehicle’s presence, and pictures of the license plates are sent to a database, which checks the numbers against a list of payers. It’s not a perfect system. The accuracy rate in Stockholm is around 98 percent, according to IBM officials, while accuracy in London hovers around 90 percent.

Hoping to woo IBM with the possibility of better accuracy, Chase and Meadow Networks’ Russell have had several conversations with Landon Miller, a chief engineer at IBM who helps develop Big Blue’s congestion pricing systems. “He did think our approach to privacy was great,” Chase says.

As for the open-source double-duty mesh idea, Miller tells Baseline: “Imaging technology is probably a preferable approach.” He maintains that the validity of the mesh system might be a problem when it comes to legal enforcement.

“In a mesh, the data might skip across 50 cars before reaching the network,” Miller says. “That’s the nature of a mesh. If [a congestion pricing case] goes to court, when you start explaining to a jury that this stuff jumped all over the place, it’s not as convincing as showing them a picture of the offending car.”

Chase and Russell disagree. “The fact that the data is traveling through a mesh network matters little when the data itself is appropriately protected,” Russell says. “Much like an encrypted browser session assures both ends of the connection a high level of security, this would assure the tolling authority that the charge is actually due to the specific transponder.”

“Given the IBM 95 percent reliability, our system would give more compliance,” Chase argues. Says Miller: “We’re working on bettering our license plate technology.”

IBM has submitted its own proposal in response to New York’s request for congestion pricing ideas. In addition to cameras, the proposal addresses New York’s desire for E-ZPass interoperability.

“The E-ZPass Interagency Group [IAG] provides detailed guidelines on how E-ZPass transactions are reconciled among all E-ZPass agencies,” IBM’s proposal reads. “This is primarily done through the exchange of proscribed data files. The format and content of these data files are detailed in a formal, written specification, which is followed by each IAG agency. These data files are exchanged by each agency’s back office by transmitting files to, and retrieving files from, the IAG’s virtual private network. As part of the overall solution, we expect to have software modules specifically focused on handling the reciprocity requirements among E-ZPass agencies.”

Chase maintains that relying on E-ZPass—or any proprietary wireless system—is a mistake. If the transportation industry relies solely on its own wireless protocol in its own band of the spectrum, that cuts the industry off from possible interoperability efforts, such as hers. The transportation industry’s Dedicated Short Range Communications protocol offers communication between vehicles and roadside equipment. It runs in the 5.9 GHz band in the United States. Wi-Fi runs in the 2.4 MHz or 5.8 MHz range.

“Every other sector in the economy is finding secure, reliable and economical systems that use Internet Protocol and are highly compatible,” Chase writes in her blog, Network Musings. “Continued insistence on separate radio frequencies, closed networks and obscure proprietary standards mean that technology investments in transportation don’t take advantage of low-cost, high-volume components developed for the consumer market or advances in communications hardware and routing software.”

And regarding transportation and the Internet, while Cisco has yet to fund her idea, Chase and Cisco seem to be remarkably like-minded. At a recent Cisco Urban Development event in San Francisco, Cisco introduced a “connected and green bus,” which aims to save energy and improve traffic flow by streamlining the transit system’s communications technology.

“What happens in every major city’s [public transportation system] is that every time you add a new function to the bus, you have to add new infrastructure,” Villa says. “You have one infrastructure for video streaming, one for location, one for voice communications, one to stream the telemetrics of the bus, one for payments. We’re integrating those technologies into one by placing an IP-based mobile access router [on the bus] so all the communication goes over IP.

“We consider the bus like a node in the network, so you’re moving toward a mobile infrastructure,” Villa adds, noting the similarity to Chase’s idea.

And Cisco is paying close attention to Chase’s efforts. “I see Robin as one of the global thought leaders of transportation technology,” Villa says.

Allies in the open-source community are hopeful.

“It’s completely doable with the technology that’s available today,” says Sascha Meinrath, research director for the Wireless Future Program at The New America Foundation, a Washington public policy institute and think tank, a leading expert on community wireless networks and a member of the Meadow Networks board.

“There’s pretty much no scalability limit and no throughput limit. We’re 80, 90 percent of the way there. It’s just a matter of finding a municipality, a company, a patron willing to fund this.”

This article was originally published on 2008-02-21
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