Aimed at revolutionising the country’s tolling system, the pan-Indian deployment of electronic tolling (e-tolling) is expected to improve the operational efficiency of road assets, eventually leading to cost savings and a smoother traffic flow. At present, 382 toll plazas across the country have been brought under the electronic toll collection (ETC) programme with 725,000 FASTags having been issued. The penetration of ETC has been growing on a month-on-month basis reaching close to 20 per cent penetration.
The recent thrust on e-tolling has mainly stemmed from concerns over growing traffic and congestion at toll plazas. According to a recent study, around 4 million four-wheelers are added to the roads each year, which translates to a requirement of adding one lane every third year to smoothen traffic flows. Given that this is unviable, the government has realigned its focus on improving traffic flows to cater to larger volumes going forward. To this end, the government launched the ETC programme in April 2016, and subsequently launched a revamped version in December 2016.
Popular e-tolling technologies
Dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) is a microwave-based ETC technology that has been adopted primarily in European countries. This technology usually requires a great deal of investment in enabling the entire ETC infrastructure itself, as it has to be transported on board a vehicle. The advantage of DSRC is the flexibility it offers to use smart cards. However, to enable data exchange, connectivity has to be uninterrupted. Hence, such technologies can only be successful in highly advanced countries where connectivity is not a problem.
Automatic number plate recognition is an ETC technology based on visual recognition of vehicles. This technology incorporates the use of high resolution cameras for identifying vehicles and is mainly deployed in markets that use standardised number plates, usually linked to a social identity number, a bank account number or any other kind of identity proof. Countries such as New Zealand and the US have adopted this technology widely.
Global positioning system (GPS)-based technology is another variant of the existing ETC technologies that is still evolving globally. This technology does not require reading equipment to be installed on toll roads, or even for toll plazas to be set up. A satellite tracks the distance covered by vehicles on the road, after which the toll is calculated automatically.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) is an ETC technology based on radio frequency, both active and passive. In the case of active RFIDs, the tag is connected to a power source, which sends signals as and when the tag is in close proximity to a toll plaza and the reader gets intimated immediately. In the case of passive RFIDs, the tags do not have a power source and are activated by the readers themselves.
ETC programme in India
In order to identify the best ETC technology for India, the Nandan Nilekani Committee was mandated to analyse all the existing ETC technologies and give their recommendations. Further, analysis was undertaken keeping in mind the basic fundamentals of e-tolling – vehicle identification, vehicle classification, transaction processing and violation processing. Thus, taking cognisance of these parameters and addressing concerns of costs and data connectivity, the passive RFID technology was adopted.
Subsequently, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) and Indian Highways Management Company Limited (IHMCL) became key players in the ETC programme, along with the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) that was responsible for designing the architecture of the ETC system. The NPCI also worked very closely with banks that were believed to be the best medium for facilitating greater penetration of the programme, while already being a part of the payment ecosystem and having the requisite technology and customer reach.
For deploying the ETC technology, an RFID reader has been placed on all toll booths. It identifies the tag or the customer for making the payment. Further, the weigh-in-motion (WIM) technology has been deployed at most toll plazas to identify toll fares and fines on the basis of the WIM input, determined by the weight of the vehicle.
The transaction flow, however, is complicated. On receiving a valid transaction from the system integrator at the toll plaza, the acquirer bank fetches the information from the NPCI Mapper regarding the vehicle type and then calculates the toll fare. If there is a violation, there is a separate process for processing, when the acquiring bank raises a debit adjustment and the concessionaire is paid immediately as per the Mapper estimates. The difference in amount is adjusted after the violation has been audited. Once the acquirer sends the transactions, they are switched to the respective issuer banks. All valid transactions sent by the acquiring bank are then considered as deemed accepted by the issuer bank which has to subsequently make a payment for the same. The issuer bank also claims the money back from the concessionaires. Overall, certain rules and service-level agreements (SLAs) have been defined, failing which, debits are made. Hence the issuers, acquirers and concessionaires are liable for ensuring that SLAs are met.
Issues with the model
With regard to ETC, operational issues have emerged as the biggest challenge for the government, along with managing concessionaires, system integrators and plaza operators. The root of the problem lies in the multiplicity of stakeholders and the absence of real-time transaction flows.
The ETC model currently employed has some drawbacks. For instance, fine charges in the case of overweight vehicles cannot be based on the WIM input alone, but on the weight depicted by the static weighbridges deployed at toll plazas. To address this challenge, an alternative has been devised by NHAI and IHMCL, wherein the WIM would be connected to the boom barrier that would come down only when a vehicle is found to be overweight. This will give the driver a chance to challenge the WIM input and weigh the vehicle separately. However, this defeats the whole purpose of ETC, which is to facilitate free flow of traffic.
With regard to automatic vehicle classification, an input is sent to the toll plaza to check for vehicle classification in case a tag is perceived to be misused for another vehicle. However, this input has proven to be highly inaccurate (almost 60-75 per cent of the time). Furthermore, cameras installed at the toll plazas do not follow a standard format, which poses a great challenge in identifying vehicles, especially at night. Hence, a manual audit process has been put in place at both the level of the toll plaza and the acquiring bank, so as to ensure that the correct amount is being deducted from the customer.
Meanwhile, the RFIDs deployed lack adequate memory to account for all customer/ vehicle-related information, because of which the acquiring bank or concessionaire has to separately request for the information from the NPCI Mapper. Further, the time lag in transaction flows is quite high, often leading to cases where FASTag users, with no balance in their tags, enter the toll road as they have not been included in the blacklist in a timely manner. The resulting delay creates a hindrance in the free flow of traffic.
ETC penetration and transaction levels have also not been significant in the case of cars and jeeps. Of the total FASTags issued, 29-30 per cent have been for trucks (4/6-axle load), 24 per cent for buses and trucks (2-axle load) and 30 per cent for cars/jeeps. Despite the 30 per cent penetration for cars/jeeps, transaction levels have been quite low.
In the times ahead, another challenge that is expected to arise is the adoption of the ETC model at the upcoming public toll plazas. Currently, of the 420 toll plazas in the country, the majority (260) are under build-operate-transfer projects, while the remaining are under engineering, procurement and construction projects. This has, to a great extent, reduced the complexities in incorporating ETC systems at toll plazas.
The road ahead
In the future, the government aims to bring all the 3,500 toll lanes in the country under the ETC programme and convert them into hybrid lanes (lanes that accept both FASTags and other modes of payment), with one lane at each plaza being exclusively reserved for FASTag users. As the level of penetration increases, one additional lane would be added, which implies, at a 30 per cent penetration level, the second lane will be reserved, and at the 40 per cent penetration level, the third lane will also be reserved. Meanwhile, the ETC model is being modified to overcome its shortcomings. Bids have already been invited for setting up an integrated toll management system (ITMS) which will facilitate real-time transaction flows. Also, going forward, prepaid wallets will be used, as opposed to post-paid ones, keeping in mind the issues associated with retrieving money from users later.
In the long run, the government aims to operationalise the open-loop system of tolling once an 80 per cent penetration of FASTags is reached. Once open-loop tolling is declared a success and has been running for six months, the GPS-based tolling system will be introduced, for which a pilot run is under way on the Delhi-Mumbai route. The success of this pilot will determine the implementation of the technology on other routes.
Based on presentations by Akhilesh Kumar Srivastava, Chief General Manager (IT and Highway Operations), NHAI and Denny V. Thomas, Assistant Vice President and Product Head, NPCI, at a recent India Infrastructure conference.