The expanding universe

Keith Mortimer tries not to panic over some cosmic questions about the tolling universe and the probability of interoperability.quo will usually provoke a diversity of forceful responses from people, newspapers and governments.

Users of road vehicles will have no natural affinity for tolls unless the perceived benefits can feed the energy field rather than dampen it. Logical understanding of the issues (quicker journeys, lower pollution, fewer potholes) does not directly equate with individual drivers’ actions and perceptions, although they might wish that the universe behaved in a better way. To be more successful, tolling will also discover how to utilise the mobility field.

EETS, like the Higgs Boson, is based on a theoretical model. But sadly EETS is not the Boson. Its quasi-existence has resulted from, rather than catalysed, the chaotic tolling universe. Its most shaky premise is that each EETS provider will be able in our lifetime to sign all of the agreements necessary with a multiplicity of institutions and users. No, in fact the Boson turns out to be individual choice, which currently interacts with the mobility field in a technology-rich environment to

When all the tolling schemes in the known universe were operated by cash, and mobility was less well developed, the degree of interoperability between tolls was not the biggest issue.

As the known universe has become more fully explored, the barriers to trans-border travel have been successively reduced. However, the parallel evolution of a new galaxy of tolling policies and practices has spawned a multiverse of schemes, each following an individually determined orbit. Is it possible to discover the meaning of RUC, the Universe and Everything?

The ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ is a fairly interoperable story, having been translated in thirty languages (even without the aid of a Babel Fish). If Douglas Adams had been interested in road pricing, the Guide could have remarked that: “Road space is big – but the actual number of roads tolled is relatively very small. So for anyone who matters to be remotely interested in their compatibility, it is first necessary to desire many more tolled roads. Or else interoperability will be infinitely improbable.”

Everything is relative, as another scientist once said. A justifiable desire for tolling is being driven by financial pressures, to replace ailing taxes, fund needed infrastructure and improve journey reliability. But the old ways of collecting cash will not do, when free flow tolling offers benefits to improve traffic speeds, reduce emissions and save costs. The change from traditional cash collection at toll plazas to open road electronic collection demands the best use of technology, using a standardised approach to meet a constellation of local challenges.

But still, only cash is universally interoperable – in the USA every hundred miles of cashless ETC-operated turnpike are still accompanied typically by hundreds of points of sale, and to optimise compliance it’s important either to accommodate or to shift user preferences.

The growing desire to extend tolling is generally followed rather than led by pressure for separate systems to work together. Interoperability across borders is essential, to offer efficiency for operators and an improved experience for users. Or else there is a risk of unwanted cost and complication – so that just when we understand what the tolling universe is for, and why it is here, the cosmic laws of unintended consequences will take over.

Use of open standards does not just mean the post-facto sharing of specifications by a dominant supplier – although this may have its place. The fact that it’s “the right thing to do” does not obligate a supplier or an industry responsible to shareholders, who quite legitimately can ask, “but who will pay?” And if a locality, or a national agency, has invested in a scheme already, when does it make financial sense to make a change? The universe is as it is. Drivers, companies or governments will feel it right to be intolerant of proposals that cause extra cost if the benefit is not clearly seen. Absolute agreement by all parties is almost infinitely improbable.

Fundamental particles

Nobel prize-winning theories are always interesting, if not entirely understandable. We have learned that the Higgs Field is responsible for the existence of everything, including planets, people, bridges, tunnels and tolling stations. Something called a Boson enables interaction with this universal, invisible energy field and endows the property of mass to particles, without which they would speed around freely in splendid isolation forever. So the universe is actually bizarre, if slightly less inexplicable. In the end, interoperability enables cosmic existence and diversity.

It would take too long to re-invent the universe on behalf of Road User Charging – but it does not need to operate on quite such a massive scale. Could an invisible energy field already exist to help us out, and is there a Boson available as a catalyst?

Field of dreams

There exists a diversity of road users. Their common factor is a desire (or at least a need) for personal mobility, for a multiplicity of reasons. This provides the energy field exploited by entities such as car salesmen, parking attendants and tax collectors. This energy transcends national boundaries, driven by the demand for mobility. Problem: the ‘mobility field’ can easily develop a high emotional charge, as any attempts to interfere with the status each of which is utilised by a separate microcosm concerned with its own private affairs. Such a universe would be quite bizarre.


Tolling is still seeking the perfect formula. If only these various dimensions could collaborate within the universal mobility field, the tolling universe might be freed from a straitjacket which actually limits user choices. Interoperability is actually the framework that creates the power of user choice. In an era of change, solutions have to be outcome-related, and the desired outcomes are diverse. When devising a grand scheme, the question could be: “does this enhance the mobility options for individual users?” And as Einstein remarked, the questions may be the same as in last year’s exam, but the answers are different this year.

In a universe where projects were all conceived at an institutional level, the energy of the marketplace might end at the contract award. In an alternative model, tolling would be seen at the point of sale as a consumer product, where successful offerings target individual users with personal benefits. Desired outcomes might be achieved by deployment of an EETS compatible device in a suitably user-centric commercial framework, by Spitsmijden initiatives, or by Oregon-style payment choices; but to bring tolling to the centre of the mobility universe we have to answer a simple question. The appeal is not normally at a cosmic, or even global level, but simply “What’s in it for me?”

I hope that our next conference can examine how RUC relates to other relevant markets, established and emerging, to imagine a future-proof framework of best practice, applying the energy of individual choice for better mobility and sustainability. In comparison to untangling the mysteries of the universe, surely that’s not too much to ask?

cause consequences that may be more or less desirable.

The tolling universe has harnessed these same technologies. EETS-compatible devices are practical, if the perceived benefits of deployment meet the costs of implementation. Inventive suppliers can demonstrate solutions encompassing individual choice. Unfortunately efforts are wasted if RUC schemes are conceived at length, only to vanish from the heavens like shooting stars, when the effort needed to create any quantum of tolling becomes disproportionate to the perceived benefits.

The confident acceptance of tolling as a central strategy for maintaining the ‘mobility field’ demands the co-existence of individual choice with universal interoperability.

The universe and everything else

RUC projects, conceived inside their own universe, each with rigid boundaries, separately run user accounts and protected business models, reduce immediate risks for their operators but ultimately limit their flexibility. The need to deliver against tight timescales is an obstacle to interoperability. Any degree of collaboration between tolling schemes is later hailed as a ‘breakthrough’. But the uninvolved driver would say: “isn’t that your job anyway?” – already being used to a universe where phones, TVs and computers interact much more impressively.

RUC practitioners have become excited by the discovery of a number of parallel universes which may be influencing the ‘mobility field’ in a positive way. These alternative dimensions have been detected via some notable examples, identified as “smart ticketing”, “automated eCall”, “co-operative systems”, “insurance telematics”. There could in fact be an infinite number of parallel universes existing with varying degrees of probability within the mobility field. Their accompanying technologies appear quite similar to those used by RUC, and they exhibit beneficial properties such as easy payment of fares, improvement of road safety, built-in compliance or integrated travel information.

Some of these universes are well developed and fairly self-sufficient. Others are technology-heavy and still seek a critical mass of road users in order to become viable. The Bosons of individual choice hurtle at light speed around the available universes, seeking to impart their mass-giving energy to deserving causes.

As yet, this mechanism is imperfectly understood, so that partial solutions abound. Even more profitable examples of interoperability are cited, such as mobile phones, credit cards and web based services, which appear to be subject to massive Boson activity in related energy fields.

It is rumoured that one universe exists where every vehicle possesses a “licence plate”, from which information about their activities (provided by particles called photons) could be simply transmitted across borders to enable the universal provision of tolling services. Such a universe would be too simple and is therefore felt to be very unlikely.

In yet another, many vehicles are each fitted with a multiplicity of similar “electronic tags” and “positioning devices” Keith Mortimer is an independent specialist in Intelligent Transport Systems, contributing to highway, tolling and telematics projects in the UK and internationally. He is the Chair of the ITS UK Road User Charging Interest Group, and co-chairs the annual RUC Conference.


CMAGAZINEinternational developments in road user charging

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Credit: T.A Rector and B.A. Wolpa, NOAO, AURA and NSF