US officials very interested in VMT/road use charges - ITSA people

June 3, 2009
By Peter Samuel

Attendees at the ITS America annual conference at National Harbor Maryland say they are very encouraged by  Obama administration officials' interest in road pricing and other ITS technologies. Ken Philmus, ITSA board member and a toll industry veteran now with ACS, says US officials have been attending the conference and inviting ITS people in large numbers. He says a speech to the conference by Aneesh Chopra, 38, who has the title of Chief Technology Officer in the White House, was "electrifying" and a great encouragement.

Philmus says the major programs being discussed in which technology is key are (1) HOT lanes and (2) road use charges/VMT tax. HOT lanes initiatives, he says in the metro areas of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles are so bold in scope they will add enormously to regional mobility and to the market for electronic toll and ITS technology in the quite near term. More general road pricing/VMT technology he says is somewhat more uncertain near term, but he's encouraged after what he calls a "knee jerk" reaction  early on from the White House against Secretary LaHood's positive words.

North America's largest electronic toll systems supplier Mark IV was heard on Capitol Hill this week, with chief technology officer Richard Turnock telling a meeting with the House Transportation Committee that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees and closely related variable road use charges (RUCs) can be built on existing and new "active" transponder-reader technology.

Turnock's statement was largely a pitch for expanding E-ZPass and for the Janus transponder-reader system that is at the heart of the Mark IV proposal in the E-ZPass recompete procurement being conducted by the Inter Agency Group of about 20 toll authorities. The specifications for the Janus reader on the Mark IV website don't say it's dual frequency (915MHz, 5.9GHz) and Mark IV officials decline to elaborate or explain further, because of IAG nondisclosure rules.

The Mark IV technology chief in his statement on Capitol Hill said: "Our new RFID technology called JANUS(™), a progeny of the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system, is one example of a low-cost, high-performance, field-proven RFID system and offers a seamless migration with uninterrupted interoperability and seamless reciprocity to a ubiquitous 5.9 GHz DSRC federal standard; if and when it is approved."

That description of Janus only makes sense as a reader with 915MHz and 5.9GHz antennas able to handle the existing population of some 20m 915MHz E-ZPass IAG Group transponders along with new OmniAir standard 5.9GHz boxes.

Mark IV has developed a Bluetooth proximity-range wireless interface for its transponders, probably just one of a number of moves to integrate its transponder-reader system with other vehicle systems.

Turnock claims superior performance for active systems in accuracy and in "expansion possibilities (with) applications unavailable from older passive technology including so-called 'sticker tags.' "

"Active-technology transponders," he said "can be easily integrated with the vehicle and other on-board technologies such as the GPS needed for VMT calculations through wired or wireless connections such as Bluetooth(™)."

Here is the description of how they envisage a dual frequency IAG-based tolling/VMT/RUC system would work:

"The JANUS VMT system can use GPS technology to identify vehicle locations and user fees based on local taxes, time of day, traffic congestion and other zone-specific rules. Onboard transponders communicate directly with motorists as they enter new zones, including premium rate zones and offload VMT data through low-cost JANUS roadside hotspots at traffic signals, toll plazas, fuel pumps and other mobile commerce sites where billing is automatic. Even without an additional positioning device, active-technology RFID transponders can respond to beacons placed at strategic locations such as intersection to implement zone, congestion or other variable rate fees."

Turnock interestingly concedes it is likely several different technologies for tolling/VMT/RUC fees will coexist. His words on Capitol Hill:

"Ultimately, the technical backbone that will underpin a VMT finance structure will likely be a solution composed of integrated technologies. No single technology is sufficiently flexible or cost-effective to be the ubiquitous solution at this time."

Early on he said: "America need not wait a decade for the vehicle fleet to turnover and be equipped by the OEMs (automakers) with new technology before deploying VMT. Many existing active technology RFID systems at the roadside can be quickly and easily converted to accommodate VMT."

The RFID solution (short and medium range wireless reader-transponder systems), he said have "the potential to take the 'technology issue' off the table" so that elected officials can focus on the policy they want to implement rather than fretting about how to do it.

Turnock's statement to USHRCT&I:

Different technologies

COMMENT: we think Turnock is correct in the last important point. There are a bunch of different  front-end technologies that will do the future tolling/VMT/RUC job and the notion that we must have a single standardized system nationwide is mistaken. Multiple front-end technologies can record vehicle movement and the real challenge will be in the back office where multiple reads of the same trip will need to be cancelled out with thorough reliability. The challenge will be managing an overload of vehicle movement data, not a deficit in data.

Technologies available are:

(1) license plate reading cameras for those vehicles without an operational in-vehicle device - needed all over as backstop, whatever else is deployed

(2) active RFID including present E-ZPass, ASTMv6 and 5.9GHz OmniAir - logically kept as a major technology in the mid-Atlantic, midwest and northeast but spread beyond if there's the will

(3) passive technology especially sticker tags which (despite Mark IV's derisory comments) have proven very accurate and cost-effective according to tollers using them in Texas, Florida, and Washington state - possible as a registration tag and therefore potentially ubiquitous in some states, otherwise suitable for broad VMT/RUC use where established for tolling

(4) purpose designed VMS/RUC units that draw on in-vehicle odometer and speedometer data, use  mobile telephone messaging (SMS) and location finding like that of Apple iPhones with Skyhook Wireless which locates by proximity to mobile phone towers, WiFi, and some GPS

(5) purpose-designed GPS units, but count us as skeptics because GPS is least effective where you need it most (in dense cities and congested conditions) and it's expensive per unit and contrary to GPS sales pitches it doesn't save much on the terrestrial infrastructure which is scaled for enforcement and backup cameras and data interchange - required regardless of whether the prime technology is active or passive RFID, purpose-designed vehicle data compilers and mobile phone location finding, or GPS.

A country like the US with heavily decentralized government and with different road policies different places doesn't need a single system for VMT/RUC even if were possible to obtain it. It needs systems that are tailored to local policy needs and which can 'talk' to one another at the back office level.

TOLLROADSnews 2009-06-03

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