When will GNSS be chosen over RFID to Toll Roads?

In a recent email exchange over the various San Francisco proposals to deploy congestion pricing, a long-time road-tolling pundit remarked: "I'm not sold on GPS. It is expensive and unreliable as the Germans have found with their GPS-based Toll Collect for trucks on the autobahn system."

GPS (properly "GNSS") metering has come a long way since the 1990’s technology used in the 2003 Swiss and 2005 German systems. Companies from Germany, Austria, Italy, Canada and New Zealand all have reliable GPS metering in operation in the field and collecting revenue. Even the Toll Collect system resolved all their original reliability problems. In fact, Financial-grade GPS (FGPS) has been tested by Caltrans in San Francisco and has been reported here;
and this page also provides a URL to the original draft report from Caltrans.

Compared to RFID, GPS technology is more flexible, more extensible, and cheaper for large systems. If the only thing San Francisco will do in the next 20 years is one cordon, then it should use RFID by all means. But if this is the camel's nose in the tent (and you and I know it is), then GPS should be used. Had FGPS been used in London instead of cameras, the initial system would have cost 200M instead of 500M and the western extension 20M instead of 500M. RFID is perfect for one-time, non-extensible use. It is no longer appropriate for systems that will be extended or need to be flexible.

A recent paper given at the 2010 Slovenian Traffic Congress talks about 10 reasons GNSS is better than microwave
.  Actually there are 11, but the author left out interoperability (since the GPS signals are non-proprietary), and it was too late to change the paper before delivery.

E-ZPass has 22M transponders and 3700 toll lanes equipped with readers. I would suggest that the 5-year replacement cost for this system at  $1,000,000 per lane and $2 per vehicle (exclusive of operating costs) is $3.75B. Alternatively the 5-year replacement cost using GNSS road-use metering at $150 per vehicle is 3.3B.  We would have to study the operational costs, as well, of course, but let’s assume they are a wash (they are not, because E-ZPass is more costly.)

So already, for large systems, the cost of GNSS rivals that of RFID. The bill of materials for a FGPS-based device in volume is already approaching $100, and will go lower. RFID prices no longer decline: materials will go up, labor will go up, power will go up, construction costs will go up, maintenance costs will go up, right-of-way costs will go up.
But, GNSS prices will decline.  As the pressure for tolling more and more of our network increases, the case for RFID which is already founded more on habit than understanding, continues to erode. Only its installed base and fear of change preserves its legacy. Its economics is failing.

We will certainly make the switch from RFID to GNSS.  The question, now is only: "When?"
I think there is further evidence in the fact that Kapsch paid a measly $3.18 (about 1 drive’s-worth!) for each E-ZPass user or a paltry $2.9M for each of the 24 Toll Operators that are part of the E-ZPass group
. They bought the (captive!) customer base for a song. As richer telematics platforms for the connected vehicle provide more and more features, and as FGPS-based parking, insurance and road tolling become simple apps on these platforms, dedicated transponders and the hideous clutter of gantries will no longer be the gold standard for tolling.

But congratulations to Kapsch for picking the pocket of America as she sleeps.


There are ways out of this

Shai Agassi has a way to get clean electricity into your car without multi-hour charge-times.

And Scott Brusaw has a new way of generating solar power that is very close to the car. And here is an article related to this idea that even talks about charging the car as it drives.

There are new power storage innovations, as well. Paper batteries news item, and the original paper.

I see a lot of optimism in this. Sure it will take awhile, but which future do you prefer? That or this...
From the Behance Network (?)


The Decade of the Dashtop

I had the privilege of giving a 3-minute TEDx talk at a Toronto event called TEDx IB York, yesterday 2010.11.11. I used the word Dashtop in the title to play on high-tech history of desktop-laptop-palmtop that I allude to in the talk.

Here is the text (co-written with Lukas van der Kroft and with a nod to Tom Vanderbilt for the Manhattan horses).  I will add the Youtube link when it becomes available in a few days.

It’s 1870. I’m a driver in Manhattan. The speed limit is 5mph. But I ignore that. I seldom yield to anyone. My horses stink. And the kind I drive trample 200 pedestrians to death every year.

It’s 2010. I’m a driver trapped in congestion. I’m wasting time and fuel. I’m polluting. I’m texting people that I will be late. I am poking at my GPS to find another route. And, I am beginning to hate cars.

The number of vehicles on the planet will double in 25 years, but roads will expand by less than 10%. Since is impossible to build our way out of congestion cars and roads need to be much smarter to process more travelers and more trips. Twentieth century driving will go away just like Manhattan’s 19th-century horses did.

Partial solutions won’t work. We expect electric vehicles and smart grids to improve the environment, but they will also add to congestion and wipe out the fuel tax. And that threatens the sustainability of our roads. So we also need to re-think fueling infrastructures and the way we pay for road use.

Extraordinary innovation at the dashboard will address congestion and make transportation safer and sustainable in the new century. Historically, high-tech innovation has moved through cycles of feature-glut-followed by-consolidation-then by-availability. In the 90s it was laptops. Last decade it was smart phones.

What’s up next is the decade of the connected vehicle.  We’ll see a wave of breakthroughs on our dashboards. Cars and infrastructure will begin to collaborate over 4G networks.

Real-time speed, location, heading and other measurements about cars around you will become critical to a revolution in safety and mobility.  We will rely less on driver attention and field of vision. Our dashboard will know what’s around the corner as well as miles away. It will handle so many tasks we will be supervising our car rather than driving it.

Your new dashboard will enable a massive leap in roadway utilization. It will balance congestion, desired arrival time, emissions, right of way, and signal timing. It will have advanced systems for speed control, collision avoidance, convoys, lane departure, and parking assistance. These are just a taste of the feature glut intended to keep your trip safer and easier and to consume less road space.

Your dashboard will manage road use payments to replace the fuel tax. These will be based on usage patterns: where, when, what, and the distance you drive. And this will force gas taxes, tollbooths, parking meters, and even your car insurance to follow Manhattan’s horses into history.

You may even fall in love with your car all over again.

Thank you.


A reader asks

I have been following this Skymeter thing for some time now, and I have few questions:

1: Could your in-car meter cost be 100% offset or set to a nominal amount such as $10 if tied to location based services or couponing?

ABSOLUTELY!  That is the whole reason for adding multiple, desirable user services such as automatic, ticket-free parking payments and pay-as-you-drive insurance.

2:  Is there a model whereby a smartphone could replace the need for your telematics unit?

Not exactly, although the smartphone will be integrated for auditing, couponing and several other elements and services. Why can such a replacement not be 100%?  There are two critical difference between the telematics needed in the connected vehicle and smart phones.

First, payment telematics for road, parking and PAYD insurance must be attached securely to ensure correct metering for payment.  You can leave your phone at home or off.  This class of technology acts like an electronic license plate or a taxi meter.  It is not transferable or moveable, as is the in-car unit for the Toronto’s 407 or the E-ZPass in the US, which charges at a point and is replaceable by a license plate reader.  So doing it your way, but with these constraints would make it like the attached, in-car-phones of 15-20 years ago -- a step backwards.

Secondly, the driver is in a bit of an adversarial relationship with a road-use | parking | insurance meter, unlike your collaborative relationship with your navigation device or smartphone. Hence the road use meter must operate without user intervention and must always be correct to within a tiny error tolerance (e.g., 0.1%).  The GPS sensors on your smart phone cannot do that.  Skymeter can because it has several other sensors and processors that would make your smart phone about 50% bigger (for now – and to anticipate your next question – sure that will come, someday, as well).

The location-precise telematics we have developed we call Financial-grade GPS (FGPS).  What is in your smart phone and your Garmin is Navigation-grade GPS.  FGPS means: always accurate, non-reputable, low transaction cost, and private.  Just like your Visa card but not like your smart phone (which missing both “always accurate” [with respect to location] and “non-reputable”). The part we developed will disappear behind your rear-view mirror and your smart phone (or a dashboard display) will be your interface. AND your telco provider will be handling your payment.  So a Skymeter = the meter, your smartphone = the app interface, and a telco = the service provider.  But inside the Skymeter-smartphone combination are several other apps such as safety, in-car signage, other traveler apps, couponing, rewards, parking loyalty programs, and many others -- the smartphone app-model, but for automobility-related apps.
3: Could your parking fees be paid for by businesses that want to encourage you to park near them?
ABSOLUTELY.  That is an included capability. This is where the smart phone can play a role, although there are several ways to affect this. Remember your great uncle who does not like cell phones?  BUT you need the accuracy and non-refutability of FGPS to avoid cheating.

4: I think [Google | Facebook | Apple] is going to pay for your parking. Do you agree?

Well, I think your local retailer might want to pay for your parking (as an earned reward) and folks like Google | Facebook | Apple will fight over ways to help them.


Dutch transportation bombed back to the Middle Ages?

The history of road tolling can be seen to parallel the history of civilization.  A couple thousand years ago, in the Stone Age of tolling, the emperor would set some trusted tax collectors at the side of the road to block passage and collect a toll. Much later in the Bronze Age of tolling, local lords erected small huts that evolved into the toll booth and coin counters of the Iron Age of tolling. Then passing through the Dark Ages of fuel taxes and the Renaissance of microwave and video cameras, we arrive, finally, at the Modern Era infrastructure-free satellite tolling.

Throughout this history, as in many facets of human development, we cling to the past, afraid to abandon old habits.  In fact, like adherents of ancient religions suitable for darker times of plague and crusades, far more vehicles today slow or stop to pay tolls at booths or coin counters or have their plates read by cameras, than enjoy free flow satellite tolling.

Less than 0.1% of all the vehicles on the planet have thus far made the leap from the Renaissance to the Modern Age and these are the million trucks so equipped in Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia. Until a few months ago, the Dutch were poised to push this figure to almost 1% – an enormous leap, if you think about it.

But all that changed presumably because of America’s war in Afghanistan.  Early in 2010, the Dutch government collapsed over an Obama-requested reversal regarding Dutch troop withdrawal. That halted the “Kilometerheffing” system, which was to be based on Modern Era satellite technology.

The proposal of the new, minority government is to increase fuel taxes, which is known to have no lasting effect on congestion. Even newer proposals call for privacy-invasive video cameras instead of privacy-protecting GNSS OBUs which were designed to keep personal location data personal.

Does this mean America has bombed the Dutch transportation reform jaggernaut back to the Middle Ages?

I originally thought that, but now I don’t. The real reason is in the way humans prefer risk. We are more willing to gamble when it comes to losses, but we are risk adverse when it comes to gains. And in this politicians are no special case.  Drivers prefer to risk continuing to lose more time to congestion than to risk the promised gains of congestion pricing. Politicians prefer to risk the failing efficacy of fuel taxes to risking the potentially greater gains of road-use charging.

Professor Jens Schade (Dresden University) specializes in acceptability of transport pricing strategies. He shows that losses are psychologically at least two times more powerful than equivalent gains. This means that for the new Dutch politicians to continue their predecessors’ programming, they need to percieve that the potential gains of GNSS-based road-user tolling (both in terms of transport efficiency and job-retention) are more than twice as great as the potential losses of raising fuel taxes and putting in a few video cameras. Clearly they don’t.