Transponder price drops to new low - Utah DOT buys 6Cs for $1.59ea from Neology (UPDATE AT END)

July 26, 2011

Utah DOT is buying ISO 18000 6C sticker tags from Neology for $1.59 apiece, the lowest price we know of that a transponder has been sold in the US. A Utah official told us that FSTech/Sirit bid just a nickel more or $1.64. TransCore bid $3.50.

UDOT is supplying the sticker tags to owners of designated "Clean Vehicles" entitled under state law to free rides in the toll Express Lanes on I-15. The order was for only 3,000 tags and the bidders were told they needed to quote under $5,000 so UDOT could avoid hitting the threshold for a full-blown multistage competitive procurement.

One of those vendors told us they offered UDOT a "special price" and did not want to be held to the same price in future.  Nevertheless the competitive pressure is on the transponder-makers to offer better prices, along with the lower costs that are enabled by the higher processing capability and lower costs of newer, chips and their reduced power needs.

The E-ZPass IAG's big news last week that they have a $8.90 price from Kapsch (Mark IV) for an active transponder with a  5 year battery suddenly makes the $8.00+ being paid for TransCore 6B eGo/SeGo sticker tags in Texas and Florida look high.

6C tags have greater processing speed and lower power requirements than 6B (eGo and SeGo protocols) but nevertheless are cheaper to manufacture because warehousing and inventory control applications have created such a huge market for them - leading to great economies of manufacturing scale. Tagmakers like TransCore, FSTech/Sirit and Neology buy low cost commodity chips with standardized processing capabilities and memory, and they add antennas and rugged sticker 'packaging' that they have custom engineered for vehicle-to-roadside communications at speed.

Non-transferability a key with 'Clean' tags

The Utah DOT official told us all three 6C tags worked well in tests but in their application where 'non-transferability' is an important property, Neology worked best. To identify Clean vehicles only - hybrids mostly but also CNG and electric vehicles - the tag must only function on the vehicle to which it is initially attached. It must break if someone attempts to pull it off a windshield, and then not function.

Utah tests showed both the FSTech/Sirit and the TransCore 6C sticker tags survived removal from a windshield.

Only the Neology tag suffered the desired fatal injury in removal, the Utah DOT official told us. Both the FSTech and TransCore tags could still be read after removal.

That difference has given Neology bragging rights.

Eric Redman VP Marketing says in a recent statement about the Utah sale: "We are pleased to work together with UDOT to provide this innovative tag. This product marks the first use of non-transferable technology in a tolling tag using ISO 18000-6C technology. In addition, the tag contains a unique holographic antenna and other sophisticated elements which have never previously been used in a tolling or HOT lane application."

The holographic antenna he talks about is an offshoot of the huge REPUVE project to equip Mexico with many millions of unique electronic vehicle registration tags that can be read by laser for enforcement, and which must break under any effort to strip them from one vehicle and place them on another.  (see picture nearby)

TransCore readers

Utah DOT contracted in 2008 with TransCore to supply an entire toll system for the Express Lanes - to be 24 miles, 40km of lanes managed with variable tolls. But the eZGo Anywhere transponder proposed turned out to be only a concept tag, so while they stuck with TransCore's Encompass-6 readers and their system software, they bought switchable 6C transponders from FSTech/Sirit.

These are a kind of hardbody passive tag that can be disabled with a switch on trips when the car constitutes a carpool (HOV2+) and the front of the tag displays a red stripe for both photographic and visual (state trooper) enforcement.

Since the beginning of the month (from July 1 2011) they have also been reading the 6C straight sticker tag from Neology for Clean vehicles.

How do the three makes mesh?

"Tolerably well, but not nearly well enough," says a UDOT official. She says the TransCore Encompass-6 readers are "marginal" in their ability to read both kinds of 6C tags - both the FSTech switchables, and the Neology Clean Vehicle stickers.

They are hoping TransCore can improve their performance in reading 6C, or at some point they might have to look for another supplier, and a swapout.

UDOT already has a pair of FSTech/Sirit readers, she says, and they read both kinds of 6C tags "beautifully."

The difference doesn't justify any early action to swap out TransCore readers for FSTech, and TransCore may come up with a fix.

In Washington state on the Tacoma Narrows bridge with TransCore readers 6C tags are not being read and video tolling is used instead.

One engineer told us the problem is that power levels and other aspects of the Encompass-6 are optimized for the slower, more power hungry 6B tags sold by TransCore all over Florida and Texas. That makes it difficult to switch to a mode that handles 6C well.

UPDATE: August 3 a public information officer asked us to publish a retraction on the comments on the Encompass-6 performance reading 6C tags. The official UDOT retraction reads: "In limited testing conducted by UDOT, the TransCore Encompass-6 readers read the 6C sticker tags from TransCore, Sirit and Neology at 100 percent."

TOLLROADSnews 2011-07-26  UPDATE 2011-08-03 10:30

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