March 6, 2006 5:25 AM PST

An RFID solution to rush hour headaches?

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."

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You wrote that this would be political suicide in other parts of
the world. Well, it isn't exactly popular here in Sweden either...
Annika Billström has talked to the press several times,
complaining about her hatemail.

The scheme with the RFID tags didn't work. Well, the tags
themselves worked, but somehow someone messed up and
didn't draw money from the participants' bank accounts.
Unfortunately, the bad planning didn't consider this possibility,
and the system blamed the participants, who now has to pay via
the 'net or 7-elven. Oh, plus late fees. (Guess how popular this

And the license plates are surely not checked against the
national driver's license database, as the car owners are listed in
the national car register.

I might also add that a few people have had their license plates
stolen, and now have growing debts as the license plates every
day visits Stockholm during rush hours. (The politicians want
them to pay and then appeal.) Oh yes, this thing is wonderfully
set up. The people loooove it.
Posted by marsun (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
But wait, there's more
What surprises me is you haven't gotten an email stating that your account for your RFID tag needs validating at where it will ask you to double check your info by entering your bank account and PIN information.

We have a similar setup in our city where the toll roads use these in some of the lanes. The traffic in those lanes is much faster and the toll costs less if you use the tag (the toll authority still makes their money by saving on equipment maintenance costs and less employees). It seems to work well.
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
Link Flag
London Congestion Charging
Such a scheme already exists in London, England. Rather than relying on drivers installing RFID tags it works through license plate recognition.

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Posted by mantod (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
They say this is also a pollution control measure, yeah right. How about dumping the money into research on green vehicles, or in the places that can support it, better mass/rapid transit systems. I can't speak for swedish politicos, but in the US this would all go to pay higher salaries for the politicians. The ususal, "look what we did, we need more money".

When I had to, I hated waiting for the bus, getting on early so that I could get to where I needed to be late.
Posted by schubb (202 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Where is technology helping?
Could the 25% reduction in traffic be from people flocking to public transportation to avoid paying traffic fees? The title of the article seemed to mean that the IBM technology helped manage rush hour traffic, which, clearly is not the case. Not sure if this will work in US, where people love to drive.
Posted by ragjunk (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This is nothing new
Mass already has an RFID system. It's called easypass. Most of the eastern seaboard has the implemented at the toll gates. What we don't have is an integrated Mass Transit system not to mention that Corps. are spreadout all over the place.
Posted by aaroberts (82 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Here in Chile...
the technology has been around July 2005. I agree with you that the technology it self doesn't reduce pollution (except from the part that the system charge an extra fee in rush hours, which is not a big deal), but in Santiago (one of the most polluted capitals of the world) this system has:
help the government reduce their investment in highways making contracts with private capitals to invest.
Lower the number of traffic stops (wich accounts for almost 60% of gas).
Gather data of traffic movements (in order to plan a better public transport system)
Minning data to desing the future urbanizations.

The funny thing is that this system (at least in Chile) is not an IBM Technology.
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Posted by Mostrotux (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Driving for the Rich or Write-off Eligable
Stockholm is doing what London has done for quite a while: extort money from people who work in the city and drive to work in order to save time.
It is a known fact if driving takes 30 minutes taking public transport takes 60 minutes.
For someone who earns $30 an hour public transport means losing that $30 a day. Thus, paying $5 to drive to work is worth it - you could still earn $25. To hourly wage earners it means nothing to get to work faster you earn the same amount, however you lose income to pay to drive to work.
So if you are a salaried or clock hour person your choice is to waste your time on public transport or lose income. After 120 days of work a year you have now wasted 120 hours of your life - three weeks - (in the best case) going to and from work.
And then cities wonder why people do not want to work downtown?

Tom Philo
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Posted by taphilo-2003685639374287843630 (130 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Isn't this just EZPass?
Sounds just like the EZ Pass we in New England have been using for eons. Even looks like the same windshield box.
Posted by chefgene1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Not going to work to well in Chicago
With the rising cost in gas and the rising cost of public transportation. You are just going to make the public angry if this was ever to be implemented in Chicago. We already have iPass which benefits drivers more than hinder.
Posted by Sakamura (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RFID Solution: a better alternative for Asset Tracking
Static or in-motion assets tracking or locating, like a healthcare facility, wheelchairs or IV pumps in, laptops in a corporation and servers in a data center, was not so easy task.

User can instantly determine the general location of tagged assets anywhere within the facility with the help of active RFID technology. Control point detection zones at strategic locations throughout the facility allow the user to define logical zones and monitor high traffic areas. Tagged assets moving through these control points provide instant location data.

Asset tracking applications will see an almost vertical growth curve in the coming years and the growth rate in this area will be much higher than the growth rate of general RFID market. provides you best RFID asste tracking services.
Posted by dianaagilesense (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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