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Furan is vice president of business development at Q-Free, which develops tolling technologies and back-end systems. Its local projects include charging systems for Sydney's Harbour Bridge, Harbour Tunnel and Cross-City Tunnel projects, as well as ongoing supply of electronic tags for use by the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.
How does Australia rank worldwide in terms of toll road automation? Australia is in a very advanced stage of using the technology. Australia is among the few countries that has been able to deploy the technology is such a way it has become very popular. And Australia uses both tag reading and ALPR (automatic licence plate recognition) very successfully. This combination is the most profitable way of operating, which is important if projects are going to be viable.
What are the advantages of using automatic recognition systems? The infrastructure requirements when you read licence plates is pretty minimal. It's not the smallest camera on the planet but it's hanging high above the ground. And even if the camera is pretty expensive, the total investment in such a system is very low compared to tag reading. The downside with a camera reading system is you will need to process some of the pictures manually, and that's expensive. So it depends on the quality of your signs and the number of plates; the reading of plates can in some cases become a bit complex. But if the conditions for such systems are good, this is an excellent alternative. The core technologies for reading number plates automatically work very well. Our system in Stockholm handles one million pictures a day and 97 per cent are done via machine reading. Typically you get the best economy when you can combine tags for daily commuting with picture reading for casual access.
Are the main challenges technological or procedural? Interoperability between countries or cities is a tricky thing because in many places you don't have access to the relevant systems. In some places on the planet, this is tricky from a legal perspective. And all the operators need to operate on comparable terms of how they charge, then you can move on to the technology.
How often does the technology need updating? The lifespan for the technology is 10 to 15 years. Typically, it's the lack of spares that's a problem. Even if you can maintain a system that operates perfectly, you will run out of spares at some point.
What other technologies can be used to enhance tolling? Two other technologies that are very popular and often talked about are satellite-based systems and wireless LAN connections. They seem to be fashionable, but they both have their problems.
It seems tempting to have a device in the car that can automatically determine how much toll I can pay. The downside to that technology is that as a system's owner, you will have to check your traffic, or you will see a considerable leakage of income from the system. You will need to rig up control points using other technology for 15 to 30 per cent of your traffic anyway.
As for wireless networking, that's a cool technology, but it has absolutely no advantage for road user charging. What you want to do is securely identify a vehicle; you don't need 1 million bits per second to do that. Road user charging will not be the launch application for in-care wireless; it will only come into the picture when other applications have been launched.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman won't pay the ferryman until he gets me to the other side. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.