With the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and other computer-like devices, software is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives. These devices promise to make life easier, but are often just as much for entertainment and leisure as they are for practical purposes. In the world of transportation, however, software has come to play an essential role. From advanced passenger jets to self-parking cars to RFID toll systems, software has the potential to get us where we need to go faster, safer and more efficiently. In this article, we'll take a look at 10 surprising ways that software keeps us moving and how it's supplanting earlier technology.
OnStar, which is owned by General Motors, is one of the best-known "telematics and safety services" -- a feature-rich, in-car software system [source: Yvkoff]. You've probably seen OnStar's TV commercials touting the software's ability to automatically make phone calls alerting authorities if you've been in an accident and notifying them where the accident occurred. It also can be used to remotely unlock the car when you've locked the keys inside.
In recent years, OnStar has expanded its range of features in an attempt to compete with the latest generation of smart phones. For example, a special OnStar Mobile app designed for use with the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt allows users to check the car's battery level, or to choose when to charge it. It also allows users to lock and unlock the doors, start the car remotely and also check the tire pressure.
OnStar hasn't limited its expansion to smart phones. The company is testing Facebook integration with OnStar's in-car system, meaning that users could have Facebook status updates read to them while driving. The program will also allow users to record status updates that are then translated into text and posted on Facebook.
9. Air Traffic Control
Most countries employ a mix of software and human air-traffic controllers in order to regulate air traffic. But in the United States, the current system is not always efficient or accurate, leading to delays and lost productivity. And experts predict air traffic could increase by as much as half by 2025, making the problem worse [source: FAA]. So the Federal Aviation Administration has created a system called NextGen that will use GPS-style satellite navigation, more accurate flight paths, and real-time electronic data about weather conditions and the locations of other planes to regulate air traffic. Some processes, like departure procedures, will become automated, potentially allowing for more frequent takeoffs.
Unfortunately, NextGen won't arrive until around 2020 -- and perhaps even later -- and some in the airline industry question its eventual impact because they believe money should first be invested where it would make the biggest impact: more runways [source: Pogue]. In the meantime, we're stuck with the existing system, which does work. Currently, air-traffic controllers rely on old-fashioned radar and planes' built-in transponders, which generally give controllers an accurate picture of where planes are in the sky. But pilots themselves have no idea where other planes might be, which is why future systems will provide them with GPS-style tracking information. The UPS fleet already uses this technology in all of its planes.
Occasionally, the software that air-traffic controllers use crashes, which causes delays and cancellations. For example, in 2004, a Microsoft Windows server that ran LAX's radio system crashed, leaving controllers unable to communicate with pilots [source: Broersma]. But despite these hiccups, it's worth remembering that American air travel remains very safe, even if the system must change to accommodate a future that promises much more crowded skies.
8. Cruise Ship Navigation
With the world's largest cruise ships now carrying more than 8,000 passengers and crew, these mega-ships are small floating cities that require advanced navigational systems [source: AP]. So if you've ever wondered how a cruise ship of this size make its way across the world's waterways, it's likely thanks to something called an integrated bridge system (IBS). An IBS combines most of a ship's functions into a single integrated console system, improving efficiency and dramatically cutting down on the number of crew members needed on the bridge. Because the IBS serves a sort of central hub for most of the ship's functions, communications and sensors, it can do things like track weather conditions and use that information to find better routes and cut down on fuel consumption.
IBS manufacturers include Raytheon and Northrup Grumman, companies perhaps better known for their work producing military hardware. In fact, naval vessels have traditionally been far ahead of civilian fleets in installing IBS. Now, cruise ships, with their radar, communications antennae and various sensors, are being outfitted with similar IBS setups. From these consoles, crewmembers can set up a ship's autopilot, use GPS to track the route, communicate with maritime authorities, check system logs or see what other ships are in the area.
7. Traffic Light Systems
Traffic lights generally operate on pre-programmed schedules modeled after traffic patterns. Using computer modeling, engineers adjust traffic-light schedules based on the changing flow of traffic, with the aim, of course, of maximizing efficiency. These sorts of signals are often called fixed-time signals.
There are also so-called traffic-responsive signals, which use information gathered from sensors to determine when to change a light from green to red (or vice versa), rather than adhering to a fixed schedule. Sensors come in several possible forms. One type is embedded in the roadway and capable of detecting passing cars. Other sensors may be located around a particular intersection and use acoustic detection.
There are other components to traffic-light systems that can be deployed, depending on a community's resources and its city planners' decisions. For example, you may have heard of public buses that can "extend" a green light. These essentially work by a GPS- and computer-equipped bus alerting an upcoming light to its approach. A computer attached to the light receives the bus's (automatic) request to extend the length of the green light; after the bus passes through the intersection, the light returns to its scheduled intervals.
E-ZPass is perhaps the best known and most widely used of the automatic toll collection systems. The program, which is used largely in the eastern half of the United States, works rather simply. After setting up an account, an E-ZPass user installs a small device that contains a radio frequency transmitter. When a driver passes through an E-ZPass toll lane, the driver's transmitter sends a signal to the tollbooth, which automatically deducts the appropriate fee from the driver's account.
An E-ZPass user can periodically top off his or her account, or set it up so that E-ZPass regularly charges the user's credit card. The only requirement is the RFID device must be installed near the top of the driver's windshield to work properly.
Different RFID toll systems exist in other parts of the United States. And many other countries have installed similar toll systems, most notably in subways, where they cut down costs related to collecting, guarding and processing change.
5. Self-Parking Cars
While we don't yet have fully automated cars -- Google's self-driving car is still in the testing stage -- self-parking cars have come a long way. As of late 2010, at least 10 different cars from a number of manufacturers had some sort of self-parking ability [source: Hawkins]. So how does it work? Well first, most of these systems are not fully automated. Instead, several simply offer assistance to the driver. For example, when parallel parking, a driver can activate the parking assistance system and the car will use sensors to measure potential spots. Once it finds an adequately sized spot, the driver selects it (with the BMW 5 Series, the driver activates the turn signal to do so) and the car begins parking. The car controls the steering wheel as the driver controls the speed using only the brake. There's no need to even press down on the gas pedal.
Parking systems vary, and some may assist with only one type of parking, such as backing into a space. Also, drivers may find trouble using these systems in crowded settings, but in the right circumstances, they've been found to be safe and reliable.
It may seem like an unnecessary luxury, and in some cases, it is. The self-parking feature can add more than $4,000 to a car's price tag, although some are more affordable and available in mid-priced cars.
4. Movable Bridges
There are many different types of movable bridges, including bascule (a bridge whose movable section swings upward in one or two pieces), retractile, swing span and vertical lift. There are even bridges that have movable sections that submerge underwater. All movable bridges are essentially designed for the same purpose: to have some movable section that can be shifted to make room for watercraft. Many movable bridges still rely on early 20th-century methods, with control houses on the side of a bridge containing manual controls that release the bridge's emergency brake and set it in motion.
But engineers have incorporated high-tech features into some newer bridges. In Wisconsin, authorities have added surveillance cameras and monitors so that some bridges can be controlled remotely. In County Longford, Ireland, workers completed a bridge in 2008 that is one of the world's few totally automated movable bridges. Lasers detect incoming boat traffic, which in turn sets in motion the normal sequence of events: turning on warning lights and signals, closing off the bridge to road traffic, and eventually raising and later lowering the bridge. Special software controls the bridge's movable section, which is positioned on four hydraulic jacks [source: Movable Bridges]. And unlike most bridges, no human involvement is necessary.
3. Train Software
We've come a long way from the days of black-smoke-spewing, coal-consuming locomotives. Today's trains, particularly high-speed passenger trains, are sophisticated machines run by expensive software. Perhaps it's no surprise then that a major supplier of both train software and hardware is the computing giant IBM. So what can a computer company do for the railways? IBM makes self-service ticket kiosks, wireless sensor systems designed to replace RFID tags on freight, video scanners, scheduling software and more. And the company is expanding quickly into the field, buying up makers of rail-related software and inking contracts to work on rail networks in The Netherlands, China, Taiwan and Kazakhstan.
IBM has serious competition in the high-tech arena of high-speed rail. Siemens, the massive German conglomerate, is a major player in the industry, as are other multinational firms eager to exploit the growing market for high-speed rail in China. It's in China where some of the world's fastest passenger trains are now found. China accomplished this distinction by building tracks expressly for high-speed trains, rather than modifying old tracks, as has happened in parts of Europe, and employing bleeding-edge technology like train-mounted lasers that scan for defects in the track. Other safety sensors are employed on the actual tracks. By combining these various pieces of equipment, along with software that optimizes track schedules, rail operators have leveraged technology to make their trains run faster and on time.
2. Adaptive Cruise Control
Like parking-assistance features, adaptive cruise control first appeared several years ago on luxury cars but has now found its way to more affordable models. Adaptive cruise control isn't autopilot for your car, but it's the closest thing to it that you can find on a commercial vehicle. Most adaptive cruise control systems work in a similar way. The driver sets the top speed, the car modulates its speed according to traffic and the driver only has to steer.
All of this is accomplished through the use of sensors. Depending on the car, it may use cameras, radar or lidar, a light-based radar [source: JD Power]. The car's sensors communicate with a computer, which calculates any necessary changes in speed and adjusts the throttle accordingly.
While at first it was considered a luxury option, adaptive cruise control is now being marketed as both a safety feature and a more sophisticated form of cruise control, which can save gas. As the technology advances -- and the price drops -- it's possible that it will form a bridge to more advanced features that eventually bring us autonomous cars.
1. Airplane Software
Today's passenger planes are immensely complicated machines that rely on solid physical construction as much as they do solid coding. But because of software's rising importance in the latest generation of airplanes, any bugs or malfunctions can be immensely troublesome -- and equally costly. Boeing's massive 787 Dreamliner has been subject to continuous delays, in part because of recurrent software problems. From its brakes to its electrical system, the Dreamliner has been bedeviled by bugs that amount to costly delays for a company with billions of dollars of outstanding orders.
Unlike a computer game or operating system, airplane software -- particularly for something as central as the electrical system -- must be virtually error-free. There are rigorous certification standards that various systems must reach, and companies like Boeing employ vast teams of software engineers to make sure their planes reach these standards. These engineers are also essential to the testing process. Before the plane ever enters commercial use, software engineers have pored over vast amounts of data collected by the plane's many instruments.
In November 2010, some Airbus A380s, the Dreamliner's main competitor, began having engine fires. The problems threatened to ground the fleet, but Rolls-Royce, the maker of the plane's engines, said it would replace the engines (which had been leaking oil) and that it had a software patch fix that would help in case of a fire.
Interested in reading more on software and how it keeps us going? Click to the next page for lots more information.
Lots More Information
- Internet Communication Puzzles
- Googleplex Pictures
- Memorable TV Moments Pictures
- Google Earth Pictures
- 10 Most Popular Computer Accessories of All Time
- How much fuel will we consume by 2050?
More Great Links
- Associated Press. "World's largest cruise ship clears bridge obstacles." MSNBC. Oct. 30, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39909997/ns/travel-cruise_travel
- Bennett Engineering Design Consultants. "Begnagh Lift Bridge." (11/21/2010). http://www.bennettmg.co.uk/Project_MS_Begnagh_Bridge_1.aspx
- Boyle, Rebecca. "Giving Traffic Lights a Mind of Their Own Can Reduce Congestion." PopSci. Sept. 15, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.popsci.com/cars/article/2010-09/giving-traffic-lights-mind-their-own-can-reduce-congestion-study-says
- Broersma, Matthew. "Microsoft server crash nearly causes 800-plane pile-up." Techworld. Sept. 21, 2004. (11/21/2010). http://news.techworld.com/operating-systems/2275/microsoft-server-crash-nearly-causes-800-plane-pile-up/
- Charette, Robert. "Boeing 787 Dreamliner Software Brake Issue Solved." IEEE Spectrum. Nov. 3, 2008. (11/21/2010). http://spectrum.ieee.org/riskfactor/computing/it/boeing_787_dreamliner_software
- Cohan, Peter. "Is the Boeing 787's electrical system working?" Daily Finance. Aug. 20, 2009. (11/21/2010). http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/is-the-boeing-787s-electrical-system-working/19135085/
- Cooley, Brian. "First Look: Onstar Mobile." CNet. Jan. 6, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://cnettv.cnet.com/onstar-mobile-app/9742-1_53-50081765.html
- Cunningham, Wayne. "OnStar starts Facebook testing." CNet. Sept. 15, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13746_7-20016525-48.html
- Dizikes, Peter. "MIT researchers test automatic parallel parking." PhysOrg. Nov. 8, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.physorg.com/news/2010-11-mit-automatic-parallel-video.html
- FAA TV. "NextGen 101." FAA. (11/21/2010). http://www.faa.gov/tv/?mediaId=213
- Fairley, Peter. "China's High-Speed-Rail Revolution." Technology Review. Jan. 11, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.technologyreview.com/printer_friendly_article.aspx?id=24341
- Hawkins, Lee. "The Skinny on Self-Parking." March 18, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703734504575125883649914708.html
- Hesseldahl, Arik. "Fast Food Eats And Runs." Forbes. Aug. 21, 2002. (11/21/2010). http://www.forbes.com/2002/08/21/0821cashless_print.html
- IBM. "Rail Transportation." (11/21/2010). http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/rail_transportation/ideas/index.html?ca=v_rail
- Infodev. "Traffic Light Priority System." (11/21/2010). http://www.infodev.ca/vehicles/products-and-passenger-counters/products/systems/tlps.html
- JD Power. "Adaptive Cruise Control." (11/21/2010). http://www.jdpower.com/autos/articles/Adaptive-Cruise-Control/
- Kharif, Olga. "GM, Ford, Nissan Bring Smartphone Apps to Cars." Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Nov. 18, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/nov2010/tc20101117_352847.htm
- Lam, Brian. "Lexus Self Parking Car Video and Review." Gizmodo. Aug. 25, 2006. (11/21/2010). http://gizmodo.com/196551/lexus-self-parking-car-video-and-review
- LaMonica, Martin. "IBM hops aboard high-speed rail." CNet. March 24, 2009. (11/21/2010). http://news.cnet.com/8301-11128_3-10203013-54.html
- Maritime Journal. "Integrated Bridge System for polar vessel." Nov. 3, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.maritimejournal.com/features/onboard-systems/navigation-and-communication/integrated-bridge-system-for-polar-vessel
- Mone, Gregory. "Adaptive Cruise Control Goes Mainstream." Wired. July 20, 2009. (11/21/2010). http://www.wired.com/cars/coolwheels/magazine/17-08/pl_motor
- NBC Chicago. "How Do They Know When to Raise Chicago's Bridges?" July 28, 2009. (11/21/2010). http://www.nbcchicago.com/around-town/archive/How_Do_They_Know_When_to_Raise_Chicago_s_Bridges__Chicago.html
- NYC DOT. "About Movable Bridges." 2009. (11/21/2010). http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/bridges/opener.shtml
- Paur, Jason. "The Software Side of Flight-Testing Boeing's New Planes." Wired. May 7, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/05/the-software-side-of-flight-testing-boeings-new-airplanes/
- Peace Bridge Authority. "How Does E-ZPass Work?" 2002. (11/21/2010). https://www.pbaezpass.com/howit.html
- Pogue, David. "The Costs of Solving the Air-Traffic Mess." NY Times. April 17, 2008. (11/21/2010). http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/17/the-costs-of-solving-the-air-traffic-mess/
- Pogue, David. "Toward Friendlier Skies." NY Times. April 10, 2008. (11/21/2010). http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/10/toward-friendlier-skies/
- PR Newswire. "Kazakh Railway Turns to IBM for Smarter Transportation System." NY Times. Nov. 12, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://markets.on.nytimes.com/research/stocks/news/press_release.asp?docTag=201011121104PR_NEWS_USPRX____NY00467&feedID=600&press_symbol=151846&scp=3&sq=transportation%20software&st=cse
- Rhodes, Jim. "New Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship is Equipped with Navigation and Communication Systems Supplied by Northrop Grumman." July 5, 2007 (11/21/2010). http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=122482
- Sefton Council. "How do traffic signals work?" Oct. 27, 2008. (11/21/2010). http://www.sefton.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=3270
- Ship Technology. "Automation at Sea." Feb. 25, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.ship-technology.com/features/feature77533/
- Sperry Marine. "VISIONMASTER FT Series." Northrop Grumman. (11/21/2010). http://www.sperrymarine.northropgrumman.com/CustomPages/BrochureDownloads/Downloads/550/Product%20Brochure.pdf
- The Pennsylvania Turnpike. "About E-ZPass." (11/21/2010). http://www.paturnpike.com/ezpass/about.htm
- The Sydney Morning Herald. "Airline calls in flying doctors for A380 'hospital line.'" Nov. 16, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.smh.com.au/travel/travel-news/airline-calls-in-flying-doctors-for-a380-hospital-line-20101115-17uf8.html?from=smh_sb
- VDOT. "Traffic Signals." April 12, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.virginiadot.org/info/faq-trafficsignals.asp
- Wald, Matthew L. "Flying the Crowded Skies: Challenges for Aviation." NY Times. Jan. 15, 2007. (11/21/2010). http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/washington/15fly.html
- Wardell, Jane. "Rolls-Royce to temporarily replace oil-leaking engines on Airbus superjumbo jets." Nov. 16, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5hciMygTysAGv8JMeqtqxh85AX7_A?docId=5142835
- Wisconsin Department of Transportation. "Remote control of movable bridges in the Northeast region." Oct. 22, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://www.dot.state.wi.us/projects/liftbridges/index.htm
- Yvkoff, Liane. "GM seeking insurance break for OnStar subscribers." CNet. Oct. 28, 2010. (11/21/2010). http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13746_7-20020955-48.html