Devices and decisions

Justin Hamilton explores whether technology can make a difference to the way users perceive tolling and road user charges

There are many different ways an operator can receive monies and manage transactions with the end user, ranging from manual cash payments to automatic direct debits. On a recent drive across Portugal, your correspondent paid €13.75 (£10.80) for a trip on the A1 Autoestrada do Norte. Some time later, a car journey into Central London resulted in an almost identical charge of €14.60 (£11.50). The former was paid in cash to a ticketed toll booth and the second via credit card registered with an automated payment system. Notwithstanding the relative ease of parting with foreign notes compared to one’s own domestic currency, it is impossible to escape the difference of personal attitude towards tolls requiring a physical payment and those not.

How users pay the fee will influence the way they regard the charge. While technology will ultimately remove the need for a physical interaction, it has the ability to bring users closer to the operator and give greater control.

Peter Rufus, senior consultant at Process Management, argues that new technology will have only an indirect impact on user acceptance: “Where there are toll booths every 30-40 km the user must slow down, stop, pay, get a receipt, accelerate and so on. He will be annoyed every half an hour. If you get rid of toll booths and introduce an on-board unit (OBU), which will automatically charge him for particular segments, he will be less annoyed. The technological update of an existing toll system can have a positive impact on the user, but indirect.” The user may feel less inconvenienced by the toll, but this does not alter the fact that money must be paid and may not change her overall opinion of the charge.

That technology will have only an indirect impact on users is a view supported by others in the industry: “There is a perception of fairness concerning the charge itself, which does not depend on technology. Comfort is an important factor when it comes to user satisfaction and technology may add to the comfort of use. However, there is a perception of fairness concerning the charge itself, which does not depend on technology”, says Stefan Eisses, managing director of Rapp Trans NL. Timothy McGuckin of GeoToll agrees: “The acceptance of ITS technologies is related to what you are doing with it. What you want to do is accurately charge for use of the road.”

Of course an accurate charge is not always recognised as a fair charge and fair or not, road user charges and tolls will continue to be viewed as a tax by the general public. Like any tax, the level of user satisfaction will be determined in part by the perceived quality of services offered. A brand new bridge or stretch of road offers a stark visual reminder of where money is being spent. Applying usage charges to the existing network presents a very different challenge. Even if road user charges do provide increased funding over the long-term, this may not be as obvious to the driver. The challenge is for public authorities and toll operators to communicate the benefits.

Communication is key

Technology has an underexploited potential to bring operators closer to their customers. While governments and public authorities remain the ultimate owners of any road pricing scheme, their ability to communicate with end users can be problematic and burdened by pre-conceptions and political bias. The benefits of a new project or pricing scheme can be lost and viewed simply as political rhetoric. Building public support in advance through active engagement from all parties is crucial.

“Every change to an existing system should be communicated at least six months prior to implementation. Communicating in advance can allow feedback from the end user, who can point to unforeseen problems. Positive changes should be shared along with the negative, such as additional charges. This way the negative will be less felt as users will be able to see that these charges are being fed into systems improvements”, says Rufus.

Emerging technologies such as the GeoToll mobile payment tag and app present an opportunity for two way interaction. “The app is the user input mechanism,” explains McGuckin. While presently utilised for account management and payments, mobile applications have many untapped benefits. There is an inherent convenience in an app. “It is easy for drivers to adopt – bringing tolling into the fold of everything else people manage with their smartphones.”

A growing number of smartphone apps contain ‘push’ notifications. Messages are sent directly to the device, informing the owner of promotions and service updates. A road user charging app enabling interaction between the operator and the user is unlikely to top the download list on iTunes, however there is a great deal of potential. “We are looking at what smartphones can do and seeing where the app can go.” adds McGuckin.

Solving the problem of tag interoperability could do a lot to improve ease of use and, indirectly, user acceptance. Placing the tag in the hands of the user, rather than the vehicle has the potential to achieve this goal and will avoid clichéd examples of dashboards crammed full of OBUs.

Mobile phone apps are not without risk. Smartphones can be affected by battery failure and poor reception. Were either of these to disable the accurate flow of information between the tag and the reader a customer could end up with an incorrect bill in their account, adversely affecting their acceptance of the charge.

Provider benefits

Improvements in tolling technology can create tangible benefits for the toll provider, allowing for rapid expansion of existing schemes in far less time than would otherwise be possible. The swift expansion of the nationwide toll network in Slovakia demonstrates what can be achieved when operators embrace developments such as satellite based tracking. Through the incorporation of both satellite navigation and the cellular network, Skytoll was able to increase the length of tolled roads from 2,477km to 17,762km in a very short space of time. Slovakia is now the only country in the EU with road user charging across all motorways, expressways and major roads.

User choice

Allowing the users to select a technology they are comfortable with is absolutely essential if any new road pricing scheme is to be successful. Not all users will be happy to install a GPS unit into their car, although many do so every day when they purchase a satellite navigation system or use Google maps. These examples demonstrate that individuals are ultimately happy to accept tracking technologies as long as they are presented with a choice and informed in advance. Physical infrastructure such as gantries and toll booths can be a continual reminder of a choice that was not offered.

The relative success of the Oregon mileage based pilot is arguably attributable to their embrace of user choice in reporting method, combined with a broad public communication and outreach programme. In this case vehicle location technology is not mandatory, merely offered along with solid guarantees protecting personally identifiable information. Users are made aware of how their personal information will be gathered and stored.

The world is littered with examples of public dissatisfaction towards toll roads or taxes, often viewed as one and the same. Recent displays of public anger against new charges in France, South Africa, Greece and India prove that dissent is widespread. The biggest challenge operators and authorities face is not how to make the system work, but how to encourage users to accept the changes. Technology can help achieve both, as long as it is communicated in the right way and individuals are presented with a clear choice. Projects which shun technological advances and rely on inconvenient methods of user interaction will find the task of acceptance even harder. How and indeed whether authorities and operators embrace new technology will likely determine the success or failure of the road pricing project. The use of devices such as smartphones and OBUs is a clear technological trend. It is not known how these will evolve in future, but it is clear there will be no going back.

Article taken from the November 2014 issue of RUC Magazine