The Future Of Road Tolling Technology

Tolls are an annoyance, but they're now a permanent fixture of the road building scene. Lifehacker chats with tolling expert Steinar Furan about the role of technology in the tolling experience.

Picture by andy_emcee

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.

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Comments

    I'd like to see some cash points added to Victoria's roads..

      That's a step back to technology. The reason we have these multi lane free flow tolling is to avoid stoppage and increase efficiency with toll collecting.

    The considerably easier way to do this is to drop tolls and tax petrol instead. That doesn't require any fancy technology, is equitable (user pays), and would encourage low (or no) fuel consumption vehicles. Not politically palatable though...

    Once all cars are electric, then we'd have to rethink things.

      It is on way of looking at it Victor, but why should people not using the roads end up paying the price, growing up in country Victoria i would use a toll road maybe once every 6 months.

      Im sure camera Identification is the way to go surely with the amount of money cops make off these cameras with speeding fines. Should push the technology forward

        Country roads (indeed, all roads) still cost money to build and maintain - a petrol tax would have to be divvied up proportional to road use. I don't see why toll roads should really differ from non-toll roads since they all cost money.

        As a non-road-user I feel ripped off that my tax dollars are going towards paying for road upkeep and building (the lion's share of road costs are paid for with consolidated revenue, not rego fees, which barely cover their administrative costs).

        I'm not sure the petrol tax is necessarily equitable for country users. It's easy to burn a lot of fuel on roads that aren't gazetted and aren't maintained by any public funds if you're really out in the country.

        But I don't see why toll road use is any less equitable in that regard - it's user pays too.

        I suppose my opinion is skewed somewhat by the feeling that fuel excise is already very high and in that many lack viable alternatives for transport already.

      Agree with Anthony. You simply cannot apply tax as a resolute. In which case, taxes for everyone will increase each time we want to resolve a public issue (e.g. public transport).

      Besides, most of the tollroads are based on PPP meaning that it's privately operated but public owns the asset (road) after the private operation license expires, generally after 35 years. Being a private operator ensues that they, as a company, need to drive the business to profitability, and this is not the responsibility of the government.

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