ATPMs, all-options robot toll collectors have early problems but promise big savings

August 25, 2010

A toll collector at the Ohio Turnpike told us a couple of weeks back that the fancy new Automatic Toll Payment Machines (ATPMs) they've been introducing are "buggy," that motorists have trouble understanding them, that they've shorted out in rainstorms and their money bins have filled with rainwater. He said he personally had been required to "babysit" the machines.

He emailed us: "I personally have travelled to (a toll plaza) five times in the last month to spend an 8 hour shift doing nothing but babysitting the ATPM, helping patrons that cannot reach the poorly designed slots, help patrons that do not understand how to use the machines, or helping patrons that refuse to use the machines because they do not want to support something that take a job away from a person.  I have stood in one of the lanes at 4am and had a charter bus driver swear profusely at me because the window of his bus was too low for him to reach the high slots for trucks and too high to reach the low slots for cars.  I am surprised by the errors in giving change by the ATPMs and the time that rain shorted one of them out because in high wind it blows right into the slots."

Glass half empty, glass half full

We've talked to Ohio Turnpike officials, Pennsylvania Turnpike officials and to ACS the manufacturer of the ATPMs being deployed in Ohio, Kansas and Florida. The toll collector's harsh judgement (above) seems a bit overwrought.

The officials concede there are some startup problems with the machines, but say that these are not out of the ordinary for new equipment. And all are manageable, they say.

George Distel, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike told us he is pleased with the ATPM machines, twenty of which were introduced along with electronic tolling October 2009: "They are working very well overall. Like anything else that is new there are some glitches, and some improvements we can make."

"Babysitting" the machines - having a toll collector nearby to help - as well as helping confused patrons enables the Turnpike to see the startup problems as they happen.

Distel is confident they'll fix the problems. And, he says, the Turnpike will likely be buying more than the twenty ATPMs they have. They work especially well at lightly trafficked ramp toll points, where staffing of toll booths is a huge cost relative to revenues collected.

Motorists just wanna pay

Major problem they say with the ATPMs has been that some motorists want to pay before they've inserted their toll ticket. The Ohio Turnpike is entirely a ticket system (in which the motorist is issued a ticket on entry that records the point of entry on a magnetic stripe to help compute the toll on exit.)

Instructions painted on the machines against a blue background say clearly "STEP 1 - INSERT TICKET"  It has an illustration of a ticket alongside. And a display screen greets the motorist that says "PLEASE INSERT TICKET." (see pictures nearby)

It is difficult to understand why there should be a problem here.

Maybe all the various options just grab the motorists' attention?

They get distracted from the first task by the multiple modes of payment?

CEO in the lanes talking to motorists

Distel said he has personally watched the machines in operation at toll  plazas and chatted in the lane with motorists using them. He says in his experience only one in five people had any trouble with the machines, four out of five saying they were "terrific" or something else complimentary.

The people having trouble he says should become better with the machines as they use them more regularly.

ACS want to adapt the machines to customer needs

Raul Rodriguez of ACS, supplier of the machines says the company's business plan is to learn about problems and to provide tollers the ability to speedily adapt the machines to overcome any problems.

It isn't a machine they deliver and say to the customer: "That's it."

The machines need to be monitored in operation and improved. Component devices can be added, subtracted, corrected, or upgraded in light of experience.

Rodriguez says in regard to the motorists failing to insert the ticket that they can program the display to flash the "PLEASE INSERT TICKET" to draw even more attention to STEP 1.

"The display is provided as another means of communication with the motorist, and it is intended to be programmable with new messages as needed."

Also they could reprogram the sequence of operations allowing the customer to begin the toll payment and establish a credit before the ticket was inserted. At present any money accepted by the machine is immediately returned to the motorist as change if the ticket has not been inserted.

But a credit could create complications if the motorist left without finishing the transaction with the ticket.

HELP button

As another fallback the machines can be equipped with a PRESS FOR HELP button that opens an audio link to a remote customer service operator.

That remote customer service person can be provided a screen showing in real time the status of the ATPM machine, so that the motorist in trouble can be guided personally.

ACS bought the unit from Ascom

ACS's business in ATPMs was the result of their purchase in 2005 of the US business of France-based ASCOM, the leading international manufacturer of multi-mode payment machines.

The ACS ATPMs are assembled, tested, warehoused and shipped for ACS by SWEMCO a contract manufacturer in Moorestown NJ, a little distance off the New Jersey Turnpike's Exit 4 on the eastern fringe of the greater Philadelphia area. ACS staff come and go at the SWEMCO factory.

ACS writes the software that is the brains of the machine. It does the electromechanical system integration. SWEMCO manufactures circuit boards - but not for the ATPMs (CORRECTION) - at the Moorestown factory in huge automated machines and each is then subjected to a battery of tests by trained staff.

The bulky ATPM machines are mounted in heavy duty stainless steel electrical cabinets bent and welded specially for ACS by a metal shop subcontractor in the Atlanta area.

The component devices available are many - the ticket reader (from Ascom), a wheel coin machine, a self-swipe magstripe card reader, a proximity card reader, a bill acceptor, a coin change dispenser, a bill change dispenser, customer service intercom, display screen, and a receipt printer.

Old coin machine hands would be fascinated by a vaccuum transport system for coins to the upper level - avoiding the need to duplicate coin vaults at the second level. And coin basket and wheel coin machine that handles any number and variety of coins while, hopefully, sloughing off any debris that vandal-customers throw in.

New options

New options being developed are extra weatherization to handle cases of 'horizontal rain' such as that which the Ohio Turnpike toll collector described to us at Exit 39 and internal heating to combat ice-ups.

ACS' new owner Xerox is heavily involved in new printing and sensing technologies so there may soon be an alternative to the magstripe toll tickets, likely to be a new socalled 2D or 3D barcode.  Plus matching coin basket, bezels, and signage on the face of the machine.  

Internet connection for the machines helps

The machines are hooked up to the internet and are fitted to report to remotely located maintenance staff the status of the components and the supplies inventory. Internet connectivity provides for quick validation of card transactions via banking networks operated by the upstream toll system contractor.

Most of the ATPM machines being built by ACS are double height - in other words they duplicate all the components at just under 1m (3ft3) for car drivers and the second set at 1.75m (5ft9) a height more convenient for truckers.

The units are 2.17m (7ft2) high, 0.95m (3ft2) wide and a similar depth. They are designed to be bolted down.

Servicing is done from doors at the back.

Rodriguez says they shop suppliers to banking (ATM machines) and vending machines for the best value in the component devices and can readily upgrade or replace devices.

Accuracy of the devices varies but most can nowadays be 'trained'.

ACS sometimes contracts directly with a toller, other times acts as a sub and supplies the machines via another system integrator such as TransCore.

The ATPM controller can be built as a slave to the lane controller or given lane controller functions.

Each order can provide custom equipped machines. Some omit proximity card readers, others the intercom, for example.

Customers for ATPMs in the US so far include Ohio Turnpike, Florida's Turnpike and Kansas Turnpike.

TCA, Penn Pike use ATPMs and like them

The earliest deployment in the US of ATPMs was on the toll roads of Orange County California by TCA using machines from Paywerks, a local supplier. They swear by the machines. Three Paywerks machines were also used in a pilot project on the Ohio Turnpike a few years back.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike uses ATPMs of Australian design from TSTI/InTrans on its less heavily trafficked 'extensions' - PA60 and 66, Findlay Connector and the Mon Fayette Expressway.

These are all barrier tolled so no toll tickets are involved.

A Penn Pike spokesman Bill Capone told us they like their ATPMs. They are the first users of this class of machines among the old line tollers of the east. They haven't had any serious persisting problems with them. They work well he says.

Apparently the machines do occasionally make a mistake, but then so does a toll collector.

Pricey at around $100k

They are pricey machines. The all-bells-&-whistles double height ACS ATPM machine runs close to $100k/unit. Ohio is paying $92k per unit.

But for tollers that don't want to go all-electronic (transponders plus cameras/bill-by-mail) the ATPMs offer an alternative to toll collecting staff in toll booths.

They offer motorist customers more payment options than  traditionally provided.

Forget the old tollers' standby of ACMs, automatic coin machines.

Many motorists don't carry coins any more, and the 25c or quarter being the largest commonly circulating coin, most tolls would be a small bag of coins.

Any machine substitute for a toll collector these days must accept magstripe bank cards and bills and be able to dispense change.

And many motorists want a receipt.

Less pricey than toll collectors

And although the machines seem very expensive they work out a lot less expensive than toll collectors.

Here are our calculations (ACS have their own).

The project cost per full ATPM with installation, setup and training could run $125k each.

Amortize over 5 years that's $25k/yr, add supplies $5k/yr, maintenance $10k/yr, say $40k/yr cost per ATPM.

Compare this with toll collectors whose hourly pay rate ranges between $10 and $30/ hour.

Look at costs with $10/hr. $20/hr and $30/hr pay.

With benefits adding say 1/3 the labor cost of toll collectors will be $13.50, $27, $40/hr.

A year has 8760 hours (24x365) so those labor cost rates for 24/7 toll collector coverage will be $118k ($10), $236k ($20), $350k ($30)/lane.

The ATPM at $40k/lane is a no brainer compared to staffed lanes at 3x, 6x or 9x the cost of the machine. If you amortized the machines over a ten year life - not unreasonable - the comparison would favor the ATPM over staff even more sharply.

The only toll collectors who could compete with an ATPM at 5 year amortization would have to be working for about $2.40/hr pay, $3/hour labor costs.

Trademark claim

A Paywerks official told us after this report appeared that we shouldn't be using the term ATPM because, he said, they have a trademark on the acronym. We said sorry, ATPM is widely used and accepted as a generic term and we intend to continue to use it. Paywerks need to trademark a non-generic term for their product. Our suggestion: 'Tollwerks.'

TOLLROADSnews 2010-08-24 EDITS 2010-08-25

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