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Jason Van Buiten



28 April 2007

E-ZPass and Technological Systems as Applied Science

New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania contain some of the busiest

roadways and tool plazas in the United States. In fact, the seven independent

toll agencies in these three states make up two-thirds of the nation’s $3

Billion a year toll industry. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s an effort was

made to reduce the incredible congestion by creating a smoother and easier

way to pass through tolls. In 1991, the E-ZPass IAG was formed to create an

interoperable system involving the cooperation of the seven toll agencies:

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, The Port Authority of New York and

New Jersey, The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, The New Jersey Highway

Authority (operator of the Garden State Parkway at the time), the New York

Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York State Thruway Authority,

and the South Jersey Transportation Authority. ( ) E-

ZPass was first deployed on the New York State Thruway in August of 1993.

( ) Today, E-ZPass is used on almost

every major highway in all 3 states, and various similar and compatible

systems have arisen in other states, such as MassPass, I-Pass, Smart Tag,

and M-Tag. E-ZPass might seem like a pretty simple system: A device that

you keep in your car that wirelessly communicates with the toll booth as you

pass through it, so you don’t have to stop to pay with change. In fact, even a
seemingly simple system like E-ZPass is a much more complex than it

appears, containing numerous subsystems and database, involving several

different technologies, and requiring many different groups of people to work

together. The E-ZPass system can be used to create a template for what a

technological system is, and where the boundaries of that system are. We

can use these criteria for a system to explore the nature of technological

systems, and discuss the extent to which technological systems are applied


The E-ZPass technological system is made up of four main subsystems:

The transponder, the antenna on the toll booth, the lane controller, and the

host computer system. Certainly, other systems are part of the process: cars

are needed to drive through the lanes, unique license plates are needed so

cars can be tracked if they don’t pay the toll. Highways, a complex system in

itself, are what caused the need for the E-ZPass system in the first place.

Where do we draw the line? Any related system that is a complex

technological system in itself, and would exist whether or not E-ZPass

existed, and is not entirely contained within the E-ZPass system, we will

consider being outside the boundary of the E-ZPass technological system.

The first and most obvious of the four subsystems that make up the E-ZPass

technological system is the transponder. The transponder is the device that

is placed inside the car’s windshield to communicate with the toll booth as it

approaches the toll. The transponder is battery operated, and uses RFID

(radio frequency identification) to transmit radio signals in both directions. It

contains a microprocessor and operates in the 900 Mhz band. The RFID

contains basic information, such as an account number. The second

subsystem is the antenna. Antennas are placed above each toll lane and

constantly emit radio frequencies that will “wake-up” the transponder. The

range of an E-ZPass antenna is 6-10 feet. These two subsystems interact and

cooperate in order to complete the transaction as you drive through the toll.

The third subsystem is the actual toll lane, involving the booth, the screen

that tells you whether the transaction is successful, a camera to record your

license plate is the transaction is not successful, and, in some cases, a traffic

gate. These are all sub-subsystems that could be considered within the

domain of the overall E-ZPass system. The fourth subsystem is the host

computer system – the database that holds all the information needed to

make the transaction. Accounts numbers, prepaid balances, credit card

numbers and license plates are all stored here and accessed in the 2-3

seconds it takes to drive through the lane. (

Now that we’ve tediously analyzed how the entire E-ZPass system works, we

can use the information to explain the nature of systems in general. How do we

determine what subsystems are part of the system, and what is considered to be

outside the boundaries of the system? If you were to consider all subsystems to be

part of the system, you could create a tree of subsystems that would probably end

up covering every major technological system in the world. For instance, E-ZPass

needs highways, which need cars, which need gas, gas comes from gas stations,

which are owned by large companies, which are bought and sold on the stock

market. We’ve gone from E-ZPass to the Wall Street in only 6 steps. It is easy to see
that we need to create a boundary somewhere. For the E-ZPass, we determined that

there were 4 subsystems that could be considered to be within the boundaries of

the system. If we apply the same rules to technological systems in general, we

have created the following criteria:

• The subsystem must be a technological system within itself

• The subsystem must be entirely contained within the parent system (ex.
Highways serve other functions that to move cars through tolls, so they are
not included in the E-ZPass system)
• The system must be a direct subsystem (If we allowed an infinite number of
levels of subsystems, we could have an infinite number of subsystems. For
this reason we will allow only 1 level of subsystems)

By using these criteria, we can understand the nature of systems better. We

will know where they end and related systems begin. A good analogy is a family.

We can consider the parents to be the subsystem and children to be the subsystem.

There are related systems, just like families have more relatives. Every system has

related systems, but to what degree are they still part of the original system? Every

system is related to every other system, just like everyone on earth has a common

ancestor. But every system is not a part of every other system, just like we are all

not part of the same family. In this way, the nature of systems is very similar to the

nature of families.

Finally, how is science involved in technology and technological systems?

Since the Industrial Revolution, it is obvious that most complex technological

systems are applied science. But it has been thoroughly discussed in this course

that it wasn’t always this way. For all of human history until the 18th century,

technology was just technology, with little to no science used to develop it. We are

constantly told that our lifetimes are just a tiny speck on the timeline of history. But

the issue can be viewed in an entirely different way.

How much life has actually been lived? The Population Reference Bureau

estimates that anywhere between 6%-50% of the people that ever lived, are alive

right now, with the range depending on a large number of factors. (

But even taking the conservative side of that estimate, when combined with the

fact that life-spans are at an all time high for human history, we can say that, most

likely, somewhere around half of the human experiences that have ever happened

will happen in this generation. Are we really just a tiny blip on the timeline? If you

consider human history to be the actual total amount of time lived by humans

(human history = time x population), then surely at least half of “human history”

has occurred since the Industrial Revolution. Let’s combine this perspective with the

fact that life is changing at a much more rapid pace than it ever has. For most of

human history (using the traditional definition), people lived the same way – in a

Paleolithic lifestyle, or a Neolithic lifestyle. From 200,000 years ago until 12,000

years ago, how many technological systems existed? There were no inventors, no

entrepreneurs, and no rapid, abrupt changes to way people lived. This rapid

advancement of culture and introduction of numerous technological systems every

day is a phenomenon that has only been occurring since the Industrial Revolution. It

would not be unreasonable to guess that for every technological system that

existed on earth from 200,000 BC to 10,000 BC, the same number of technological

systems will be invented in 2009. Considering population increase and the rate at

which inventions happen compared to the Paleolithic era, this is probably a

conservative estimate. When using the new perspective on what “human history”

means, and considering the rate at which technological systems come into being,

we realize that the vast majority of all technological systems ever created are, in

fact, applied sciences.

The E-ZPass, while not fascinating in itself, can be used as an example to

determine the boundaries of technological system in general, and the nature of

those systems. Are all technological systems applied sciences? If not, how many?

While it is true that for most of human history, technology was not applied science,

if we consider the fact that most of the human experiences that have ever

happened in history have happened since the Industrial Revolution, and the vast

majority of all technological systems have been invented since the Industrial

Revolution, this new perspective quickly shows us that the vast majority of

technology that has ever existed is, in fact, applied science.