The implications for fleets could be dramatic: not only is the overall market for toll systems set to rise substantially, technologies are being transformed as well. Electronic toll collection has fast become popular with European operators and users, as the driver does not have to physically stop and pay. Payment is conducted by means of microwave communication between an on-board unit (OBU) inside the vehicle and a roadside computer.
The vehicle's OBU communicates unique identity information to the roadside processing computer, which enables the computer to identify the type of vehicle passing through, and which account to debit or invoice.
According to a new study by Frost & Sullivan, there are about 4.3 million OBUs in use across Europe today. This is a figure that is expected to leap to 14.3 million units by 2006 - and some predict that by 2015 every vehicle in Europe will have an OBU capable of collecting electronic toll fees, and carrying out other intelligent transportation functions.
The benefits of ETC speak for themselves: customers need not slow down for tolls to be paid, resulting in less congestion, and faster journey times. This in turn leads to increased fuel economy and less pollution to the environment. As the payment is transacted automatically, drivers need not worry about having the correct change at the beginning of a journey. For the operator, less space is required to construct the toll system, operating costs are reduced and revenues are generally increased, as fraud is eliminated.
However, a pioneering new technology being piloted in Switzerland is set to revolutionise the industry. Original ETC systems were placed in dedicated fast lanes in manual toll plazas where one or more lanes were dedicated to automatic toll collection.
Customers have been able to choose whether to pay manually or to purchase an OBU to enable cash-free payment. Subsequently, open carriageway systems were developed. Transponders located on gantries above the road employ a technology similar to that used in toll plazas.
The transponders establish a tolling zone by creating 'virtual' entry and exit boundaries and in-vehicle OBUs communicate with the transceiver, via a microwave link, to register that the vehicle has passed through the charging area. The vehicle's identity is then passed to a central computer for billing purposes. Those vehicles without OBUs are captured by licence plate recognition (LPR) software and drivers are charged at a later date.
Portugal, Norway, Italy, France and Spain are the largest markets for ETC in Europe, with about 80% of the present market between them.
In January 2001, the Swiss Government implemented its distance-related heavy vehicles fee (HVF) system in an attempt to reduce the amount of heavy traffic on its roads. The system is a countrywide road user charging system, which applies only to vehicles over 3.5 tonnes. Approximately 60,000 tags are in use.
The system is the first of its kind in Europe, and is the first to make use of vehicle positioning system (VPS) technology. No toll plazas or gantries are required, except at the entrance and exit points to the country, because vehicles are charged for using all public roads in Switzerland, not just selected ones.
Charges are made according to the distance travelled, and this is tracked by global positioning satellites (GPS) via an OBU attached to the vehicle's tachograph (a compulsory sealed instrument for checking the legal work and rest requirement and for resolving accidents). Drivers pay periodically by downloading all their trip data from the OBU on to a smart card.
The data consists of a detailed list of all events, together with date, time and mileage reading. The data is then sent to a billing centre by post or e-mail. The billing centre calculates the fee and invoices the vehicle owner.
The German Government has announced that it will introduce a similar system for commercial vehicles over 12 tonnes in 2003, and Austria will follow suit in 2004. In Germany, about 750,000 transponders will be ordered initially. This is expected to be followed by a number of countries introducing RUCs for passenger cars either across regions or countrywide.
The first of these countries is likely to be the Netherlands, where plans have been on the table since 1989. If the Dutch authorities decide to go ahead with the system, the size of the European OBU market would treble in size overnight, as it would require the installation of OBUs in all Dutch vehicles.
By far the major supplier in the European microwave OBU market is Q-Free with 75% market share, followed by Combitech with 17%. Other players include GEA, CS Route, FELA, Ascom and Autostrade with less than 5% each.
Suppliers of OBUs in the Swiss HVF scheme are a consortium of Ascom and FELA management AG, of which the microwave component is supplied by Q-Free in a sub-contract to Combitech. It remains to be seen who will be the major players in the future, however, contenders for the German scheme are Vodafone Pilot Entwicklung, Deutsche Telekom (in a consortium with Debis and Tegaron), and FELA/Ascom. In Austria, FELA/Ascom, Ericsson and Austrian mobile telephone operator One are competing, and Computer Management Associates is also interested in entering the VPS market.
A further technology is Licence Plate Recognition (LPR) software, such as that to be introduced in the London Road User Charging scheme in January 2003. While this system does not require the use of OBUs in vehicles, it is a technology that could grow rapidly in popularity, depending on the success or failure of the London scheme. For pan-European fleets, this is a time of great change. Over the next few years, fleets will want to know if the growth of toll systems in different European countries will be co-ordinated. Will vehicles have to be fitted with several toll-paying technologies - and if so, how much will they cost? And will new technologies, such as VPS, have other positive implications for fleet operators as they seek to improve their knowledge of vehicle use and data?