The EPA's Answer to Vehicle Emissions Modeling: MySQL

With large sums of cash rolling out of federal coffers to help reduce vehicle emissions, and major policy decisions coming down the pike for how those emissions will be regulated, you’d hope that the government has a tool for assessing how new policies and changes in the U.S. fleet are likely to affect emission levels. Well, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just released the official updated version of its modeling system for estimating emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources of emissions on U.S. roads.

It’s the tenth update since the original model came out in 1978, and the first update in five years. The new modeling system is meant to provide more accurate picture of how much pollution will be produced or prevented as a result of different initiatives and emission control strategies.

This latest update — called MOVES2010 (for Motor Vehicle Emission Simulator) — represents a few “firsts” for the EPA modeling system. It’s written in Java and based on MySQL‘s open-source database software, which is commonly used by web companies (Om has called it “the real broadband brain“), and it includes a graphical user interface. MOVES2010 enables analysis of emission impacts across multiple scales, according to the EPA, from the national level down to county transportation projects.

As the EPA explains in its user guide, MOVES2010 will help answer “what if” questions, such as, “How would particulate matter emissions decrease in my state on a typical weekday if truck travel was reduced during rush hour?” or “How does the total hydrocarbon emission rate change if my fleet switches to gasoline from diesel fuel?”

With the new system, the agency says it will be able to incorporate large amounts of data about vehicle emissions from a variety of sources. Meanwhile, the states and local governments that use the modeling system to inventory their emissions (as part of requirements under federal air quality regulations) will be able to view emissions in several output formats. For example, the system can provide an estimate for the total mass of pollutants (e.g. tons or grams of CO2), or emissions for specific areas and time periods. That contrasts with previous versions, which only offered a grams-per-mile output.

Overall, the upgrades in this latest version — in particular the new database approach — are meant to make the system much more flexible than previous models. The 2004 version, called Mobile6.2 was written in the programming language Fortran and ran on DOS, while many of the data elements were hardcoded and difficult to modify. Systems like MOVES2010 (released in draft form earlier this year) help inform “decisions about air pollution policy and programs at the local, state and national level,” according to the EPA.

In a time when the agency and Congress are considering regulations for greenhouse gas emissions — and years after databases first became, as Om put it back in 2004, the most crucial piece of software in “a broadband enabled life” — improvements in accuracy, capacity for deep data analysis, aggregation and disaggregation, and speedy updates can’t come too soon.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dr. Keats

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