August 1, 2007
enroute | RFID on the Road

Getting a read on congestion

getting a read on congestion

RFID technology is in line to change driving patterns, reduce congestion, and help the transportation industry operate more efficiently.

By John R. Johnson

If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of taking a cab ride in Boston, you know what a harrowing experience it can be. If you're lucky, the air conditioning will be working while the taxi idles in one of the city's infamous traffic jams. And if you're really lucky, the shocks will be in working order too, since your driver is likely to hit at least one pothole the size of the Big Dig.

That may be about to change. Since the beginning of the year, 30 taxi cabs in the city have been outfitted with RFID tags. Combined with sensor technology, the tags are expected to help cabbies avoid traffic jams and provide information for a database on the city's worst potholes and ways to avoid them.

It's all part of a project called CarTel, backed by professors and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). By the end of the year, the group hopes to have RFID tags and sensors on about 400 private cars as well, in an effort to build a more extensive database on potential bottlenecks as well as roads in disrepair. In an ideal world, information could be relayed to highway officials, who would then send a crew out to fix the road. The CarTel project will likely expand to include cab companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles later this year.

The goal of CarTel is to make personalized route recommendations to drivers, based on the driver's personal commute history as well as commute histories of other drivers who are willing to share their information. In addition, the system could help monitor the vehicle's performance by collecting data on emissions and gas mileage. These reports could be combined with historical data, thus highlighting long-term changes in a car's performance. Such a system would be able to provide the driver with early warnings of potential trouble.

It's just one example of how RFID technology, coupled with other technologies like sensors and GPS, is expected to make life on the road a lot easier to handle—and possibly less expensive—in the coming years. In fact, the technology is making its way onto the nation's roadways in a big way. From Boston to Alaska, RFID is showing its potential to provide visibility for cargo and ease congestion due to poor road conditions and isolated events like accidents or a ball game that affect traffic flow.

Early warning
MIT isn't the only university that's investigating ways to use technology to improve traffic patterns and safety. In June, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the New York State Department of Transportation finished installing six solar-powered mobile RFID readers that will monitor traffic flow by reading EXPass tags attached to passing cars. (Motorists use the tags to pay for highway tolls.) RPI began testing last fall with a single RFID reader in Troy, N.Y., and added six more readers this spring, enabling them to collect data for an eightmile stretch of highway in Rochester, N.Y.

Researchers at RPI received a $3.9 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to fund the program, which could be used in the future to calculate how long it takes traffic to move from one stationary RFID reader to another. Someday, data collected from the system might help to reroute traffic when congestion occurs, or to alert motorists to slow-moving traffic by sending a message to their cell phones or GPS systems.

"We really hope to see if, in fact, the technology can be used to get a better handle on traffic and travel times," says Al Wallace, director of the Center for Infrastructure and Transportation Studies at RPI and a professor of decision sciences and engineering systems at the school. "I happen to think there will be a variety of technologies that will be used [to improve] traffic management. We're not just talking about congestion, but incident management. The better idea we have about traffic behavior, the better job we can do routing for commerce. It's not just the individual driver who benefits, but in the short and long term, commerce could benefit by saving energy."

Indeed, the federal Department of Energy's Clean Cities Program says that U.S. trucks burn about 800 million gallons of diesel fuel each year while idling. Although much of that idling occurs in parking lots while waiting to load and unload, a typical long-haul tractor idles approximately 1,830 hours per year, in part due to congested roadways. Aside from releasing damaging pollutants into the air, with diesel prices hovering near $3 a gallon, idling results in a waste of close to $2.5 billion a year.

Filling the black hole
As much as individual drivers may benefit from RFID-equipped autos and roadways, industry stands to gain even more. Some industries are already benefiting from the use of RFID tags—both active and passive— along U.S. highways. Since January, Horizon Lines, a domestic ocean container shipping and logistics company, has utilized RFID along its shipping lane in Alaska to track the movement of goods for customers like supermarket chain Safeway. Many of the RFID readers are deployed alongside the highway weather stations used by the Alaska Department of Transportation.

The advantage of using RFID—as opposed to GPS technology—is the cost. Although Horizon uses satellite GPSbased solutions to track refrigerated containers containing high-value goods like pharmaceuticals, the cost of deploying GPS technology across its entire container fleet would be prohibitive, says Greg Skinner, applications group manager for Horizon Services Group, a Horizon Lines subsidiary that provides transportation technology and consulting services. "The active RFID solution that we have deployed has a lower cost of ownership in regard to both the tags and the fixed-reader equipment," he says.

Skinner notes that his company has historically had little difficulty tracking cargo while it's at sea, at marine terminals, and on the rails. But when containers hit the highway, they often vanish from sight. To solve that problem, Horizon has outfitted many of its trailers with RFID technology, and new units manufactured overseas are being delivered with built-in active RFID tags.

The tags have been installed on the rear door of Horizon's containers. During the installation process, tags are scanned via a handheld reader, which reads the tag ID (each tag carries a unique serial number) and allows the user to enter the container number. This information is then uploaded into a computer system that marries the container number to the tag number for tracking purposes.

The tag on the container continuously broadcasts its unique serial number. As the tag-equipped container passes a reader, the reader receives and stores the tag's serial number along with the date and time it was read. Horizon's system polls the reader network every five minutes to process captured tag data. As the tag data is processed, the tag ID is transformed to the appropriate container number and a RFID sighting event is created with the container information, shipment information, reader location, and date and time.

The reader network includes the Horizon port facilities, key customer distribution centers, and store fronts, as well as locations along the highway in Alaska.

Safeway and Horizon Lines can both use the data collected by the RFID network to plan labor and operations at their facilities. An RFID reader on the highway about an hour away from a Safeway facility in North Pole, Alaska, helps the retailer track shipments to the store on a regular basis. When a truck carrying tagged cargo passes the location, the reader records the event and automatically notifies Safeway so it can have employees ready to unload the shipment.

Horizon, which hopes to have all of its 23,000 pieces of equipment outfitted with RFID tags by the end of next year, plans to extend the program to its shipping lanes in Puerto Rico and Guam. It is also looking into the possibility of working with state and federal transportation officials to test the feasibility of using the RFID reader infrastructure already in place on highways to create a national network for end-to-end, real-time intermodal container tracking, therefore filling the black hole that now exists.

"Our ultimate goal is to have our entire fleet tagged sometime in 2008," says Skinner. "The other piece we're looking at now is how to get better visibility in the lower 48, and we're talking to the federal government and state Department of Transportation to see what infrastructure is available, like cell towers or container yards."

Horizon sees this as an integral step in solving the missing piece in intermodal visibility. By having better visibility, Horizon could track assets in real time, reduce unnecessary repositioning of containers, address congestion issues, and increase supply chain security.

By gaining better visibility into its containers, especially as they enter and exit container yards, Horizon could also likely reduce the overall size of its fleet, resulting in increased asset utilization.

"We might not have to blanket the entire highway system," says Skinner. "If we target key trouble spots, like certain container yards where we don't get visibility for our equipment, or a certain corridor through Florida that gets lots of truck traffic, we might be able to accomplish the same thing.We have equipment that tends to sit longer at certain locations, and that will fit into how we start to deploy our future [RFID] infrastructure."

Horizon Lines also believes that in the post 9/11 world, much of what it is doing in its Alaska trade lanes will eventually be mandated by the federal government. "We want to be on the leading edge because we believe down the road a lot of what we're doing now operationally will become more of a requirement from a security standpoint, especially for hazardous containers or suspect cargo," says Skinner.

About the Author

John R. Johnson
John Johnson joined the DC Velocity team in March 2004. A veteran business journalist, John has over a dozen years of experience covering the supply chain field, including time as chief editor of Warehousing Management. In addition, he has covered the venture capital community and previously was a sports reporter covering professional and collegiate sports in the Boston area. John served as senior editor and chief editor of DC Velocity until April 2008.

More articles by John R. Johnson

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