Sunday, May 29, 2011

Freight Tolls For Trucks Take Up New And Varied Technologies

Tunnels, Bridges and Pay Roads Paint a Confused Picture
Shipping News Feature

US – EUROPE – With the news this week that American Roads Investments (ARI) is extending the use of an application for smartphones to simplify the payment of tolls on the company’s facilities, another option is available to those who bear responsibility for raising money for the use of highway pay as you go transit, something which freight truck drivers in both continents face with increasing frequency.

To anyone who has queued behind a trail of trucks waiting at a toll road pass the introduction of any method capable of accelerating the transit at these bottlenecks will come as welcome news. The problem is exacerbated in Europe by the right hand/ left hand drive conundrum between British and continental lorries with the familiar sight of a driver having to dismount and walk around his cab whilst searching for a foreign currency.

Schemes like the Dart Tag employed at the M25 Thames crossing are fine for local folks with regular trips across the bridge or through one of the tunnels but, like the ARI FreedomPassMobile scheme, which relies on linking a credit or debit card to either an Android or Apple iPhone, it only works for regular users, although at least the ARI scheme is destined to operate at all the groups facilities which stretch from Alabama to Ontario.

The Dart Tag type system has a windscreen mounted device which interacts with the crossing authorities computers using RFID technology, the uses of which within the freight industry we have covered before. The system is even capable of telling the driver when funds are low allowing him to top up the account and charges are marginally cheaper for users of the scheme as opposed to cash customers.

The newer mobile phone systems, such as that employed by ARI, normally require the driver to type in a three digit lane number as the truck enters the traffic lane followed by a PAY button but with the added versatility of using the cell phone to display a barcode ( or a QR code -the square evolution of the barcode)which is read by a scanner at the toll point. This system is likely to prove popular with many as it evolves as it already operates in the US and elsewhere as a method of payment at various retail outlets, airport check in desks, hotels etc. The smart phone outfitted with the appropriate ‘app’ can also operate as a bar code reader via the integrated camera technology.

Vignettes are another system popular with the authorities for paying for road development costs, particularly throughout Europe where only heavier trucks over 12 tonnes qualify for the Eurovignette scheme, which we have also touched on previously. These can be purchased online and once again involve a windscreen borne tag to identify charges for road use has been paid in advance. The EU Commission for Mobility and Transport have specific parameters within which governments can raise funds in this way to finance highway infrastructure, including notifying the EU how they use the money, ensuring the charges are not used to generate excess profits and that charges are fair and non discriminatory.

Obviously privately financed road, bridge and tunnel schemes have to raise funds over and above those charged by a state vignette policy, adding extra costs for hauliers, and with the UK reputedly looking hard over the coming months at reducing the Road Fund Licence whilst introducing a comparably expensive countrywide vignette scheme, with equal fees also payable by foreign visitors, there will be an even more confused picture for drivers.

The rush by governments, banks, retailers and local authorities to eliminate cash as far as possible, is likely to cause even more problems in the future and may be self defeating in that poorly controlled or understood schemes can increase delays rather than eliminate them. The all singing all dancing, read and display anything, credit controlling smartphone solution will be popular with many regular users in numerous scenarios. That however may leave a sizeable minority of people who depend on cash or simple credit card transactions in difficulties, particularly when out of their comfort zones, as when travelling on unfamiliar foreign roads, leading to unwarranted delays at toll booths.

Many people also resent the fact that things such as number plate recognition, which has become an essential tool in the police armoury, is also used not only to verify charges have been paid, but as a weapon to inflict fines on transgressors, as with the London Congestion Charging scheme. It is a very short step from sending a letter of sanction demanding penalty charges to simply using a smartphone account to extract the alleged charges from an account leaving the vehicles titular owner to try and recover the money if levied incorrectly.

The message then is simple; the average truck driver appreciates anything which reduces his travel time and stress levels; however beware the introduction of too many types of technology for what should be a simple transaction at each stage of a journey. The situation regarding the fees payable across the country in the US now warrants its own magazine, Tollroads News, which publishes daily changes in the American pay as you go highway schemes demonstrating once again that technological advances have a habit of simplifying some aspects of life whilst developing uncontrollably to spawn new industries of their own.