Green Roads Lead Back to the Data Center

The transportation sector holds a dubious distinction in greentech circles -– since 1999, it has led all U.S. end-use sectors in emissions of carbon dioxide. It’s also the fastest-growing source of overall greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly half (47 percent) of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990.

Clearly, something’s got to give, and it’s got to give soon. Increasingly regulations are looking to reduce carbon emissions, while fuel costs continue to climb.
Transportation providers will need to shrink their fuel use and carbon footprint. This will require more efficient vehicles, but it also demands advanced road and rail management systems, fewer delays, and better alignment of capacity with demand. The directions on how to get there show that all roads to greener transportation lead back to one place: the data center.

High-tech gadgets like sensors and RFID are teaming up with that staple of Information technology –- the data center –- to solve one of the most troubling aspects of current transportation and keep people and goods moving forward.

In Stockholm, a new smart toll system has reduced traffic congestion and carbon emissions by impressive percentages. In the largest project of its kind in Europe, IBM worked with the Swedish Road Administration (SRA) to install 18 barrier-free control points around the inner city, equipped with cameras and a beacon system to identify vehicles and support the enforcement of non-payers.

Each time a vehicle crosses the boundary, it automatically triggers one of two sensing mechanisms. If the vehicle is equipped with an on-board RFID transponder (issued by the SRA), it sends a radio signal that’s detected by a roadside gateway, which records the vehicle’s passage and automatically sends the information to the central processing system. For cars not equipped with an RFID transponder, their passage is detected by a laser, triggering gateway-mounted cameras to photograph the vehicle’s front and back license plates. The image is automatically sent over a fiber optic connection to the system’s centralized data processing facility, where a vehicle number plate recognition application digitizes it and crosschecks it against vehicle registration data.

All those zeroes and ones flowing between cars on the road and computers in the data center is creating a cleaner, greener Stockholm. City traffic is down by 18 percent and CO2 emissions in the inner city have been cut by between 14 and 18 percent. Moreover, the number of tax-exempt “green” vehicles has almost tripled, with research showing that the congestion charging system was the most influential factor in the decision to choose a green car.

Focusing on one aspect within a transportation company’s business can have a ripple effect, improving everything from transportation costs to a company’s carbon footprint. Chinese shipping giant COSCO used advanced analytics –- sophisticated software and consulting services that detect subtle patterns in large volumes of data — to consolidate its supply chain to 40 distribution centers from 100. The results spoke volumes: logistics costs went down by nearly a quarter and CO2 emissions shrunk by 15 percent.

In addition to the business case for consolidation, COSCO was strongly motivated by its belief in corporate social responsibility as a member of the United Nations Global Compact. By building on its previous work to improve the fuel efficiency of its vessels, the company’s smart analysis, stretching from its data center to its distribution centers, is making for more environmentally friendly transportation.

Getting freight off the roads and on to railcars is a key part of the solution, too. Rail is two to five times more energy efficient than road or air transportation, and passenger travel by rail produces three to 10 times less CO2 than cars.

Rail transportation is now using analytics and sensors to keep maintenance on track and commuters happy -– and off the roads. The Long Island Rail Road is one of North America’s busiest commuter railroads, serving more than 300,000 passengers every day. It plans to use software to improve commuter experience by integrating with on-board systems to monitor and diagnose defects, like improper brake pressure or a malfunctioning train door, and issue work orders. The sensors built into newer trains, for example, can tell the data center how many times a train door has opened and closed, which can be compared to a maintenance table to predict and schedule proactive repairs. The end result is improved safety and reliability, as well as reduced delays due to train or track maintenance.

RFID, sensors and data centers are not particularly new or newsworthy. But what is, is how these technologies are being applied in smart ways in an industry with a desperate need to reduce its carbon footprint. If you’re looking for the road to greener transportation, follow the signs to the data center. Information fuels innovation.

Gerard M. Mooney is general manager for global government and education at IBM Corp.

For more research on green and IT see my recent article Smart Algorithms: The Future of the Energy Industry for GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image courtesy of SignalPAD’s photostream.