Less really is more

Kapsch gantries

Paradoxically, convergence and consolidation are resulting  in the leading tolling system suppliers offering a wider range of products and services than ever before. Wolfgang Fleischer, Portfolio Management & International Coordination, Kapsch’s Electronic Toll Collection Business Unit considers how current and near-term technology developments will shape charging and tolling’s future.

Paradoxically, convergence and consolidation are resulting in the leading tolling system suppliers offering a wider range of products and services than ever before. At the same time, external influences, such as political ambitions to address carbon emissions and developments in the automotive and consumer electronics sectors in particular, are driving suppliers to think in non-traditional ways.

Tolling and ITS convergence

Just a few years back, a distinct trend within the charging and tolling sector was for major systems suppliers to position themselves as one-stop shops for all elements of a tolling system.

This led to a series of – at the time – really quite notable acquisitions and mergers, although a not inconsiderable amount of organic growth also went on.

Since then, however, scope and ambition have morphed into something else entirely. The major tolling companies are looking beyond ‘mere’ tolling and into ITS, with the aim of becoming go-to organisations for all aspects of road transport operations.

There is an easy logic to this. A key differentiator of tolled facilities is not just how they are financed but also how they look to justify and encourage their use by enhancing what we term the ‘journey experience’.

In years past this was manifested in the physical – well-maintained, well-lit facilities, well-kept grass verges and so forth – but it has evolved to include better predictive maintenance and better-quality travel information for road users.

This necessitates a greater level of instrumentation and almost by default suppliers of major tolling schemes have been finding themselves providing significant numbers of ITS systems for weigh in motion, traffic management, weather and video monitoring, dynamic signage and so on.

Further impetus has come about as charging and tolling encroaches more into urban areas.

 

New Avenues in Road User Charging

At present DSRC continues to offer advantages and GNSS technology continues to improve for certain applications.

There remain issues with urban canyoning and with differentiating, for instance, precisely which lane a vehicle is travelling in or whether it is in fact on a parallel, un-tolled route.

Solutions include the use of augmented GPS or the application in the back office of corrections using vehicles’ previous and subsequent toll points.

These issues will recede however at present DSRC retains the accuracy edge in urban settings.

Technology standards (including those which govern security and interfacing with geo-databases) and industry understanding of GNSS are both now mature enough to allow viable systems to be deployed and should no longer be considered a problem.

Where challenges do arise for systems designers and suppliers is in the increasing number of ‘flavours’ of charging and tolling system.

France’s Ecotaxe provides with its first truly national distance-based road user charging scheme an example, not least because within the project there are a number of technology companies supplying products to several tolling service issuers.

Where a customer wants to handle the financial transactions itself, there is an instance of supplying On Board Units (OBUs) by proxy and the technology suppliers literally have to rip into their own, complete solutions to meet the requirement.

This challenges suppliers in new ways. Long used to delivering complete solutions, they now have to demonstrate the ability to tear into their own products and provide partial solutions which will work with those from other companies. It requires a particular confidence when it comes to system knowledge and capabilities and an ability to think unconventionally.

 

Automotives and consumer devices

The coming revolution is rather more out of leftfield. In the next few years we will see deployment of 802.11p-standard technology which will enable host vehicles to communicate with other vehicles as well as surrounding infrastructure.

A concurrent development is smart device proliferation; whether this be in the form of a smart phone or tablet computer, the individual’s ability to interact with his or her surroundings in terms of data exchange is increasingly exponentially all the time.

Taken in isolation, either development has the potential to radically change how traffic management, including charging and tolling, is facilitated.

Taken together, the two are a major disruptive force which requires tolling system providers to have a profound knowledge of both the traditional and the new.

The concept of a vehicle having some intrinsic form of safety-enhancing or transaction-enabling technology is nothing new but we are now, finally, on the verge of realising this and we have to start challenging convictions that were firmly held until even quite recently.

The emergence of smart phone app-based solutions is being watched with keen interest by more progressive systems suppliers and we can expect to see a lot of activity in this area in coming years.

After a period of relative quiet, the charging and tolling sector is undergoing radical change.

Finding the right technology partner has never been more important.