3M sees big potential in ITS sector
First publishedin ITS International
All the former FSTech products services are now branded 3M
Having re-entered the ITS market, 3M is busy shaping the future technology for vehicle detection, tolling and parking, as Colin Sowman discovers.
Having sold off its Opticom business in 2007, 3M effectively re-entered the ITS market last year paying $110 million for Federal Signal Technology Group (FSTech) – but why?
“We kind of got drawn into it by the toll authorities,” says Dan McGurran, business director of 3M’s Motor Vehicle Systems and Services Division. “Our traffic management business had the technology, the back office systems and contacts to trace defaulting out-of-area individuals that were beyond the scope of many local toll authorities. Many customers didn’t realise we had such capability.”
Then, seeing an opportunity to become a full range equipment and systems supplier, 3M took the decision to enter the toll industry through the acquisition of FSTech.
McGurran continues: “The addition of FSTech’s products to 3M’s portfolio gave us a fantastic opportunity to offer a full range of solutions to government and commercial agencies. The FSTech deal covered technologies from five business units including Idris - vehicle detection and classification and PIPS - fixed and mobile automatic number plate recognition. The other areas were Federal APD - parking management and charging; Sirit - RFID transponders and readers; and VESystems toll account management and violation processing software and services.
“This additional technology gave us the ‘front end’ to our traffic management solutions so we no longer only process traffic information from third party equipment and are now able to offer complete end-to end systems. Furthermore, we are now looking to develop new and better ways to detect and classify vehicles, charge and collect tolls and provide other services various authorities want.”
Last year, at the time of the acquisition, 3M said the global electronic tolling industry was worth $3 billion and was projected to grow at an annual rate of greater than 12% – clearly an attractive proposition for 3M or any global conglomerate. Indeed 3M has subsequently revised its valuation to $4 billion. Following the purchase, to the outside world things have been very quiet but on the inside 3M has been working to integrate FSTech within both the company and existing traffic management products. The PIPS, Sirit and VESystems brands have been folded into 3M and no longer exist as individual entities.
So with its now much wider view, how does the ‘newcomer’ 3M view current problems and the future of the industry?
Well to the big questions in the US, tolling interoperability, McGurran says: “Interoperability is not a technical problem as much as a political one. Everybody says ‘you can have interoperability now – as long as you use our system’.”
Although 3M’s latest 6C RFID tags and readers can read three protocols and its cameras can use licence plate recognition to capture tolling information or track non-payers, McGurran doesn’t see a single protocol approach being adopted anytime soon. “The various states and road authorities have invested a lot of money in a variety of different tolling systems and they are not about to see that investment wasted,” he says.
However, he still believes the need for interoperability will lead to technical changes but not to a reduction of suppliers. “The ITS industry is in the best position to draw up a common technical standard for equipment that would provide interoperability and reliability without being excessively prescriptive. It would then be down to the various equipment manufacturers do decide if they wanted to supply the market and if so to meet that standard. This approach would not only provide interoperability but also ensure that emerging technologies (low cost, open standard RFID and multiprotocol readers) will lead to the selection of multiple, interoperable hardware solutions.
Perhaps more likely, he feels, is the additional of common platform technology that supplements existing systems – for example adding camera optimised technologies to the traditional number plate. Such a move would increase the accuracy and confidence level of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems. But that approach also has its drawbacks as McGurran points out: “You don’t want to give people even more reasons to steal licence plates.” This is a theme that causes him concern.
Traditional visible numberplate
Perhaps more likely is what he calls an ‘RFID enabled 3rd license plate’ which would be built into or attached to the vehicle and uses a dedicated protocol. In instances where there were also ANPR cameras, such a system could cross check the electronic and visual number plates and alert the enforcement agencies if it detected any discrepancy between the two.
McGurran notes a particular reason behind the possible introduction of such technology: “I can see more and more cities introducing congestion charging or low emissions zones and once vehicles have an electronic number plate it becomes much easier to create and enforce such zones. You will always need a video enforcement mechanism but with camera based congestion charging schemes, there is a strong incentive to use false or stolen plates. The 3rd license plate solution would solve this issue.
Another benefit would be that, the introduction of an electronic number plate would not have to wait for a generation of new cars before it became useful as McGurran says the technology could be easily retrofitted to existing vehicles.
In European countries with a vignette system the ‘third number plate’ could easily be incorporated into the windscreen-mounted sticker. “The technology would only cost a few Euros – a very low additional cost for users who are already paying far more money to purchase the vignette. Developing countries are potentially in an even better position as they have the opportunity to do it right first time,” says McGurran, “and without the cost of the traditional tags.”
This would not necessarily solve the problems in the US as he says the introduction of any retrofit requirement is likely to be deemed an ‘unfunded mandate’ and fall foul of the legislative process. “We can’t even agree on a common driving licence,” he adds.
The ease with which it would be possible to implement tolling systems, congestion charging, low emission zones, parking payments or other forms of control and revenue generation will be attractive to many authorities – especially those without a currently system in place. Where there are existing systems, McGurran view is that the challenge will be getting the various companies and authorities to talk to each other and to create some form of integration of the systems.
Barcoding on the same plate revealed using infra red light
As to whether such all-encompassing systems are socially desirable, Ryan Schultz, 3M’s global marketing manager for toll services, says: “As a system supplier we step away from any guidance. The technology is neutral; how it is used is a decision for the politicians not the system supplier.”
According to McGurran, such problems are symptomatic of technology caught in transition from being used for purely enforcement purposes to wider commercial adaptations. And while CCTV/ANPR/video tolling may be seen as a utopia by some, he points out with a degree of concern that several governments have removed the need for measures that protect the security of number plates.
Another increasingly thorny issue is that of privacy - not only with ANPR but also with any third number plate system and geo tolling. Again Schultz reiterates: “We look to legislators to decide what is right for their country and their citizens. When they make the rules, we can supply a system that conforms.”
This has lead to a patchwork of legislation not only from one country to another, but in the case of the US, from on state to another. Some countries and regions have very strict regulations concerning what information can be collected and stored and how it is used, others have none at all.
Going forward Schultz’ view is that any actual or perceived misuse of tracking information would create huge public resistance. “Not only is it a case of who is collecting the information but also who takes the money and what that money is used for,” he notes, adding: “If it is used form non-transport purposes any pretext of equity and user benefits go out of the window.”
Again the problems are not technical, they are political: should roads be funded by those who use them or from general taxation? And how would the ‘user pays’ principal work in rural areas where there are fewer vehicles but they provide a vital lifeline to many small communities.
“That’s not our role. We are more than happy to leave those decisions to the politicians,” says Schultz.
McGurran says: “We don’t have a proscriptive approach; we have an ‘open ear’ to the problems facing governments and local, enforcement and road authorities worldwide. We take those problems back to our labs and figure out solutions.”