Mark IV well positioned to win E-ZPass recompete
By Peter Samuel
Mark IV is well positioned to win the E-ZPass recompete. Close analysis of the Request For Proposals (RFP) from the E-ZPass Inter Agency Group (IAG) indicates it will be difficult for competitors to put up competitive bids. Indeed implementing any new technology from the existing Mark IV transponders will be tough.
Some in the industry say harshly it's a sham competition designed to maintain the status quo technology while going through the motions of competitive procurement. Almost everyone we have spoken to says the RFP is advantageous to Mark IV, the sole source supplier since 1995.
Competitive new technology is hindered by two main provisions of the RFP:
- a transition requiring no use of new-technology transponders anywhere before a transition date when all tollers use it (all-or-none provision)
- customer feedback requirement on interior transponders (sound-&-light provision)
The all-or-none provision is most starkly stated (p2-10, p41-pdf, 2.3.5): "No new OBU (transponder) shall be put into E-ZPass revenue service until all E-ZPass branded lanes are capable of reading that device."
To implement new technology electronic tolling dual mode readers will be needed - readers that can read the 17m or so existing IAG Mark IV transponders plus a second channel to read the new technology tags during several years of changeover. That means the existing 3,000-odd lanes of equipment will need to be replaced for dual-mode oeprations.
Among 23 tollers in the IAG just one laggard operator without a dual-mode reader in just one toll lane out of 3000 or so lanes can delay the issue of next generation transponders, because of this all-or-none provision.
The speed of new technology adoption will be set by the slowest.
Customer feedback on transponder
The RFP says at p2-44 p75-pdf 22.214.171.124 under the heading "Feedback OBU" (on board unit or transponder): "The Proposer should propose an RSE (road side equipment) upgrade an enhanced OBU that together will provide customer feedback to the driver. Proposals offering customer feedback will be evaluated more favorably."
The first sentence above suggests customer feedback is compulsory, the second that it's not compulsory but a big bonus. The next sentence switches back to make the feedback feature sound compulsory with this unequivocal statement:
"The interior OBU (on board unit or transponder) shall have visual and audible feedback. Three states are preferred: red, yellow and green LEDs as well as three distinct tones..."
The blank Excel pricing spreadsheet for responders to fill out states: "The proposer must provide a price for one of the OBU configurations in each of the groups listed in 1 to 4 above. Failure to provide a price as requested for an OBU configuration in each of the groups 1 through 4 will result in the submital being deemed non-responsive.."
Here the feedback feature is described as "OPTIONAL."
So take your pick. It is either compulsory or favored - as if writers of the RFP wanted to have it both ways.
Illinois push for "dingers"
One IAG member - the Illinois Tollway - has made a big public issue of how the next transponder must provide feedback in the form of sound. Tollway chairman John Mitola has got much publicity in Chicago for saying that he'll bring back transponders with tones. He calls them "dingers".
From 1994 when the first AT/Comm transponders were used on the Illinois system through to 2001 when the Chicago area toll system had converted to Mark IV equipment they supplied customers with a $35+ transponder with a display and a buzzer. Although they ceased supplying them in 2001 about 20k display transponders remain in use there today - though the displays no longer receive a message. But they produce a double tone when a read is successfully achieved, and stay silent if the transponder doesn't read.
Exterior mounted transponders - used on vehicles with a metallic tinted windshield mainly - are exempted from any feedback requirement.
Feedback whether by sound or lights, or both, requires a battery. They also require the build of a hardcase. Sticker tags and other batteryless transponders can't produce feedback. They don't have the power or the physical build.
TransCore, Mark IV's longtime rival has long planned to offer their eGo+ sticker tags as next generation transponders in the E-ZPass recompete. These tags are the dominant technology for electronic tolling in Texas and will soon sweep the even larger tolling market in Florida. They are also in use in Puerto Rico, Washington state and Georgia.
The IAG RFP's feedback requirement appears to be a heavy blow to TransCore's chances. They were proposing a dual mode Encompass-6 reader to read Mark IV transponders and sticker tags (see nearby) but the feedback requirement seems to make that "unresponsive" to the RFP - thereby ruling out the major new technology available for E-ZPass.
TransCore does have transponders with optional feedback - the IT2000 series - which are supplied with the SunPass brand in Florida. Passive transponders with a battery they've been around for nearly ten years. It is difficult to see how they could be competitive with the active Mark IV transponders. They are similar vintage and similar price, but have different methodology or protocols.
The sticker tags were the heart of TransCore's proposal for E-ZPass. Word is they're still planning to respond to the E-ZPass RFP but it is stacked against them with the feedback requirement - and to a lesser extent by the all-or-none provision.
Sticker tags offer several advantages over hardcase transponders so ruling them out reduces the technology options available to IAG members:
- price in the range $5 to $10 each vs $20 to $25 for regular hardcase transponders and $25 to $35 hardcase with sound & light
- no battery to run down so no end-of-battery-life customer service problems of malfunctioning transponders and need to replace
- easier handling since they fit in an envelop
Against those advantages the sticker tags are more difficult to make portable between vehicles and - of course - there's that lack of feedback.
It is unclear if any of the contenders can produce a credible 5.9GHz system for this procurement. Most members of the OmniAir consortium - including Raytheon and Mark IV have focussed on getting 5.9GHz built into cars and trucks in the factory. The European giant Kapsch and the Mobility Solutions unit it is in process of acquiring from TechnoCom of southern California are reportedly working together on a 5.9GHz battery powered transponder, but it is unclear whether they will have it sufficiently developed to compete in this RFP.
TechnoCom are working with NYSDOT on a 5.9GHz test on 35km (22 miles) of the Long Island Expressway.
Raytheon and Mark IV will likely offer a transition plan to 5.9GHz but it is unclear whether they can adequately test or demonstrate any of the higher frequency product either.
How necessary are the RFP requirements - the big question for those who smell a foul
How necessary are the RFP requirements of all-or-nothing and customer feedback? Opinions vary. Some say absolutely necessary, that the IAG can't afford to migrate to new technology until everyone has the new dual mode readers installed.
The critics say that's perfectionism - that it's an unrealistic extreme.
They say: so what if the odd toll lane can't read the new technology tag. It's just another non-read, and you usually have video to deal with non-reads. When the reader doesn't read the transponder - for whatever reason - the cameras take over. The license plate number from the camera image is run against valid account holders and the account debited for the non-read.
No big deal. You do it all the time for low batteries or multipath (screwed up radio signals), transponder mismountings, big truck shielding, poorly tuned antennas, and so forth.
In that view the RFP's all-or-nothing is an unnecessary and extreme requirement that only hampers new technology.
Light & sound feedback
There are also strong views both ways on the customer feedback requirement for next generation transponders.
Advocates of feedback say there's a real benefit to customers knowing immediately whether or not their transponder is working correctly, and a "comfort level" from hearing the tones or seeing the green light. With single lane roll-through style electronic tolling there is fixed roadside customer feedback in the form of a signalhead with red and green lights or a patron display saying "GO TOLL PAID" or "E-ZPASS PAID GO" or whatever.
With highway speed open road tolling (ORT) there is generally no roadside feedback, and some of the new calls for feedback in the transponder arise out of ORT experience. In some cases tollers have been roiled by bad publicity from motorists who claim not to have known they were running up violations on a transponder which was malfunctioning or with a low account. Illinois, Florida and Houston has seen a number of these complaints picked up in the local press.
407ETR, the Toronto tollroad built from scratch as open road all-electronic tolling has fancy transponders (see nearby) from Mark IV with red, yellow, and green LED lights plus buzzer sequences - a single one for toll paid, four for problems.
The New York State Thruway supplies truckers with a Fusion transponder (ASTMv6 & IAG) from Mark IV with lights and tones that does tolls and also provides weigh station bypass under the Pre-Pass program.
Dissenters say feedback on the transponder is pointless.
Flying through at highway speed and being told their transponder didn't read, what is the motorist supposed to do, they ask? Customer feedback, the critics of sound-&-lights say, should be in the form of an email or mailed letter to the customer at home or the office, not a worrying message from the transponder while driving.
Some go as far as to say that the tones and signals on the transponder are a safety hazard since they could distract the motorist from the primary job of driving.
Sound-&-lights have been available in transponders since the beginning. They add $5 to $10 to the cost and make replaceable batteries advisable since they are a major drain on power. SunPass Type IIb, Type IIe and Type III transponders from TransCore (IT2221 and IT2222) with tones and lights have replaceable batteries.
In only a few situations have tollers offered motorists the choice of sound-&-light versus the simple transponder with no-feedback. In illinois between 1998 and 2001 they offered that choice, and the result was almost everyone bought the cheaper no-feedback transponder and hence they ceased supplying the "display" tags. Florida will start offering the choice later this summer when sticker tags will be available as well as the existing hardbodies with feedback.
However none of the E-ZPass IAG members with the exception of Illinois and the NYS Thruway for trucks have seen the need for customer feedback features on transponders, nor have tollers in California or Texas. Their attitude has been either that it's an unnecessary frill, or that it's a safety hazard.
For that reason its inclusion as almost-a-requirement in the E-ZPass recompete RFP was something of a surprise.
A Get-TransCore IED?
Some see it as a keep-out-stickertags provision or even as a Get-TransCore IED. One observer joked that it was proof of "the inmates running the asylum."
Our view: probably not, probably more a reflection of the lowest common denominator on risk that comes from the cumbersome consensus mode of decisionmaking inherent to the IAG - a cooperative with rules that require everyone to agree to everything before anything can happen.
BACKGROUND IN RFP:
- 23 member agencies/authorities and operators in 12 states (as of end 2007)
- 2755 E-ZPass equipped lanes (2006)
- 8.8m accounts
- almost 16m transponders in use
- >2b transactions in 2005 (5.48m/day average)
- 60% of toll transactions cross IAG facilities
- 80% customers very satisfied, 16% somewhat satisfied (Feb 2006 IAG survey)
The RFP documents are only available on a disk, ordered by filling in a form on Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority's website in the procurement area.