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Debating contactless toll charging by smartphone

First publishedin ITS International
March April 2012
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Mike Burden
“The combination of smartphone and NFC is an extension of the contactless card payment technology which many retail and transit organisations are gearing up for”Mike Burden, Consult Hyperion

Developments in the mass transit sector could provide indicators of potential for greater use of mobile consumer electronic devices for charging and tolling, according to Consult Hyperion’s Mike Burden. However, opinion among toll system suppliers is divided. Jason Barnes reports

The combination of mass-market devices and their protocols, typified by smartphones featuring near field communication (NFC), points to some exciting cross-fertilisation possibilities in the charging and tolling sector, says Consult Hyperion commercial manager Mike Burden.

Contactless transactions by mobile phone are nothing new. ‘Wave and pay’ systems have been popular for some time in Japan and Korea and in parts of Africa mobile-to mobile money transfers are already common.

In some respects, therefore, it is a case of countries in North America and Western Europe playing catch-up. But solutions are now emerging. Mobile payments collaborative ISIS, which is comprised of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, has announced soft launches of NFC based payment systems in Salt Lake City and Austin in the US. Europe has not remained untouched. For instance, last year in the UK the biggest four mobile phone operators, Vodafone, 02, Orange and T-Mobile, announced a joint venture which would allow shoppers to pay for goods with phones rather than cash or cards; and Barclays Bank has just launched the ‘Pingit’ app which allows users to transfer money without having to share bank details. Individual transfers of between £1 and £300 up to a total of £5,000 per day are possible.

Contactless card manufacturers such as Gemalto, which supplied the SIM-based NFC compatibility for the Barclays/Orange ‘Quick Tap’ smartphone payment solution – operational in the UK since last year – are positioning themselves to take on the role of TSM (trusted services manager), an entity which handles the transactions between the card issuers and service providers and is in some ways analogous to the service provider role envisaged for a European electronic toll service (EETS).
Early indications

Such moves set the scene for what could be commonplace five years from now, Burden feels: “The biggest developments are in mobile ticketing. The NFC smartphone combination is an extension of the contactless card payment technology which many retail and transit organisations around the world are gearing up for. We have not had the handsets and supporting infrastructure, including the relevant apps, to do this before but the new generations of smartphone change all that.” There are a number of reasons for transit taking a lead: commuters make frequent journeys (two or more per day); and payment and positional information can be linked using phones’ inherent locational capabilities, which makes possible localised incentive and loyalty point schemes. Data can be transferred as a consequence of contactless financial transactions or picked up by users’ phones as they pass by posters and other wall-mounted information points.

“Commercial organisations want to keep you coming back and this is a way of driving usage. With the contactless payment card there’s no way of picking up all of this information but the smartphone provides the means of establishing greater ties,” Burden continues.

“With regard to road tolling, smartphones’ memories and processing capabilities far exceed those of vehicle tags and most onboard units (OBU). As a consequence, travellers will be able to enjoy a much richer experience incorporating, for example, charging and tolling, paying and parking at a facility for onward use of mass transit and retail along the way.”

Eventually these developments could replace traditional forms of toll collection using tags and OBUs. The newer technology is becoming more mainstream and there are fewer considerations relating to installation in the vehicle. The technology available for the UK Department for Transport’s DIRECTS (Demonstration of Interoperable Road user End-to-end Charging and Telematics Systems) project in 2003/04 necessitated drilling, wiring and fitting of a discrete module for tracking and charging purposes. With a smartphone there is no such work involved.

The security (non) issue

Multi-agency involvement introduces institutional complexities by comparison with a more traditional tolling system, but Burden feels there are fewer issues relating to security than some would have us believe; a SIM card both identifies and validates a phone on a network and provides a link to the user as well as information on what his or her accounts are enabled to do.

The smartphone’s ability to roam between regions and countries also means that it can quite easily pass through different charging and tolling schemes – something which a tag or OBU cannot necessarily do. Burden stops short of advocating the use of consumer electronics technology to supplant tags, OBUs and cross-agency organisations and agreements such as EETS, but makes some interesting comparisons.
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Mark Cantelli, Xerox
“The necessary standards for secure payments are already in place” Mark Cantelli, Xerox

“Take the ITSO standard for mass transit card payments: that’s just had its 13th birthday and boasts some 11 million concessionary cards, yet we’ve not seen great levels of payments. We now have EMV-based solutions, in the form of contactless bank cards, coming through instead.

“ITSO has proven costly and complicated to implement and the same could be said of EETS. I can see a scenario playing out where consumer electronics developments leapfrog industry-specific solutions. Politically and financially, there’s probably too much already invested in EETS to allow that to happen in tolling but perhaps at the asset refresh stage people will ask ‘What’s the best way of doing this now?’ and come up with something very different.” Overall functionality is another area where smart cards win out: “Tag or OBU functionality is inherent within the smartphone, which offers a good user interface and the ability to see and manage accounts. There’s also the advantage to the charging or toll service provider that there are no equipment procurement or distribution outlays.”

Unsettled issues

There are some issues which still need to be looked at, however. Variations in power needs and antenna design from handset to handset can have effects on performance, which need to be accommodated. Standards definition depends on what information actually needs to be passed. Burden says: “We may yet see standards on minimum levels of data needed for a transaction.

Security is always an emotive subject so we need to consider how we’re going to distribute information in a secure and trusted manner. Perhaps we need some more pilots.

“But I can definitely see a move away from technology solutions which accept or make just one type of payment, such as a tolling transaction. The trend is towards multi-use wireless devices which can make many different types of payment. That represents a huge shake-up for the mass transit sector and, potentially, for charging and tolling, because there’s nothing to stop back offices combining all of the various necessary technologies.

“NFC’s been hyped quite heavily but in the next five or so years we’re going to see it become a lot more commonplace. Organisations such as Transport for London are going to be enabling the use of contactless bank cards on buses from later this year. Once those systems and processes are in place the delivery medium – whether it’s a card or a smartphone – is largely irrelevant. From there, it’s all just a process of evolution.”

Candidly, Xerox chief technology officer Mark Cantelli says the US is behind the rest of the world when it comes to using mobile phones to make payments. But things are moving on apace. “We’re still a year or two away from seeing a tolling agency or a state or local government break ground on application of NFC-based mobile phone payment and even then it will be to replace cash in stopand- go lanes rather than as a true transponder,” he says.

Cantelli feels smartphones could be in use for distance based charging very quickly; he notes that the State of Oregon has just put out an RFI and is not specifying the type of OBU to be used, providing an opportunity for consumer electronics to play a role.

“Security is not an issue. All of the necessary standards for secure payments are already in place in the US, it’s just that the players will change. The situation might become a little more challenging when it comes to involving third parties in the payments process but the application interface to the back office is pretty straightforward – we already offer a payment industry compliant Mobility Advantage account management app to users,” he adds. “What customers see happening in other sectors will push the agenda. Agencies are fully immersed in day-to-day operations so tend to rely on the systems integrators to innovate. Maturity is also a factor: many agencies when presented with a new solution will say, ‘we don’t have the policies or legislation to deal with that.’ But if as an integrator I turn up with a proven technology, barriers come down and standards emerge pretty quickly. RFID’s a ready example of that.”
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Michael Gschnitzer, Kapsch
“Consumer devices are an option for limited functionalities” Michael Gschnitzer, Kapsch

Xerox already offers several solutions which allow non-banking users to pay tolls. Moving from standard invoices and reloadable cards to mobile phone-based payment is not a huge leap, he says.

“Third-party bill payment with the cell phone companies hasn’t really panned out but we’ll be able to make it easier using smartphones – the next iteration of our Mobility Advantage app will allow payment of tolls and violations. Things won’t happen overnight but 10 years out we’ll have handheld consumer electronics devices allowing users to do pretty much anything they want in terms of paying for services.”

Discussion on the use of consumer electronics devices has to look beyond the mere issue of making a payment and address the whole concept of a high-performance end-to-end charging scheme, says Kapsch TrafficCom’s vice president for international sales, Michael Gschnitzer. Kapsch TrafflcCom has already demonstrated use of consumer devices in tolling; during the 2011 ITS World Congress in Orlando the company showcased a 5.9GHz WAVE on-board unit where a smartphone acted as a user interface to indicate the toll fee due and execute payment. But, Gschnitzer says, it is difficult to talk about the utility of such devices in general terms.

“Tolling is much more complex than is perceived by many, but starts from a point that payment is an obligation, not a donation. Identification of that obligation (whether a user has to pay or not), application of the correct charge and enforcement all have to be considered.

“Consumer devices are an option for limited functionalities, such as adding an additional payment channel, but regulations, system performance and operational cost need to be considered carefully. Our customers, toll operators, want efflcient, cost-optimised, end-to-end systems. For the sorts of open road tolling solutions which Kapsch would advocate, consumer electronics devices are not nearly ready yet.”

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Paul Leghart
“From about 2025, I see the need for an aftermarket OBU being over” Paul Leghart
Paul Leghart, chief technology offlcer of CS ITS America, points to mass transit as the early adopter of consumer electronics technology, highlighting New Jersey Transit’s efforts with its MasterCard PayPass based Tap>Ride programme and Chicago Transit’s move away from magnetic strip payment technology. “Smartphones complement and will help to accelerate the current big trend in tolling of moves towards cashless all-electronic toll collection. We’re already seeing apps using QR codes (barcodes) but we’ll see everything head towards NFC.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, Apple’s iPhone 5 and Google Wallet on Android are all harbingers of the mass adoption of such technology, which will start as vendors release the next generation of phones. CS ITS America has been creating apps which allow customers to manage their accounts online for some time and is now at the feasibility stage of adding payment via smartphone.

The next great shift for tolling – in the US at least – is to distance – based charging. Unlike many other industry experts, Leghart sees that putting the stops on smartphones’ progress in the charging and tolling sector.

“I see maybe a 10 year window for smartphones. After that, or from about 2025, I see the automotive OEMs fltting toll charging devices directly into cars and the need for an aftermarket on-board unit (OBU) being over – whether that be a smartphone, a tag or some other form of transponder.

GM’s OnStar and Ford’s SYNC are existing examples of in-vehicle telematics systems. For charging and tolling, all they need to do is agree standards. Some see the smartphone as a replacement for the OBU but the problem is that there’s no ‘anchor’, no way of tying the phone to the vehicle. Embedded systems get around that. With continued growth in the use of electric vehicles and hybrids, and the consequent need for a vehicle mileage tax, I think it’s credible to see embedded systems as the solution.”
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Jos Nijhuis, Q-Free
“We're definitely seeing the amounts of money necessary to mobilise development” Jos Nijhuis, Q-Free

Q-Free’s vice president of research and development Jos Nijhuis identifies a number of areas which currently present challenges. Vehicle classification, which very often drives the amount of a toll, is a major concern: tying an individual smartphone to a particular vehicle and type at the levels necessary to consistently and accurately guarantee revenues is difficult if not impossible with current technology.

However, he notes, even some accepted ‘gold standards’ are open to challenge: license plate fraud and theft mean that license plate recognition, considered by many to be a reference, is a less than 100% guarantee of vehicle identity. When it comes to payments, using a smartphone is for several reasons more secure than with a debit or credit card because cloning is less of an issue if owners keep hold of their phones at all times.

Furthermore, levels of investment in the consumer electronics sector are orders of magnitudes greater than in charging and tolling. This makes smartphone use a real possibility in the future. To give one example, Nijhuis refers to GPS/GNSS chipsets. Current mobile device chipsets are not accurate enough to solve the ‘parallel road’ issue, where two vehicles can be travelling on adjacent roads, one subject to a charge and one not. Differentiation is a problem, but consumer pressure for greater accuracy will address this, Nijhuis says:

“Even a few years ago, the use of mobile phone technology for charging and tolling was unthinkable but we’re definitely seeing the amounts of money necessary to mobilise development. There’s a tendency to try and exploit this technology and we are seeing more trials popping up.

“Viability is an issue. Phone technology is moving forward but it doesn’t yet offer the reliability of connection of a dedicated tolling system. Battery life is another obstacle. As standard, a tag has to be operational for five to seven years, whereas a phone’s standby charge can be depleted in just a few days. So there’s a greater onus on the individual to keep a phone working.”

Nijhuis thinks that consumer pressure will also solve the poor connectivity encountered in some geographical areas. He points to international roaming as an example: there was little impetus for the phone manufacturers themselves to realise it but user demand intervened.

“Taking that into the road user charging environment, international roaming is certainly feasible,” he continues. “You have to look at driver habits, though; we see very few people taking cars from Europe to the US and the numbers of people who drive all the way from Southern Europe to Scandinavia are very small. True interoperability might make sense from a political, united Europe perspective but not for the operators.”
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Eric Wurmser, Egis Projects
“I only see smartphones as a solution for casual users” Eric Wurmser, Egis Projects

Eric Wurmser, project director with toll operator EGIS Projects, says that distinctions need to be made in terms of application.

“We can anticipate the use of NFC-enabled smartphones at toll plazas and already see NFC in use with contactless debit and credit cards. The use of these will be a matter of agreements between actors within the transaction process, such as concessionaires and banks, rather than a matter of technology.

“NFC can replace cash and credit card transactions but its short range implies stop and go at a plaza, with all the associated driver safety concerns. It’s not a new type of on-board unit, it’s a new payment method. I don’t see the use of smartphones as an OBU happening in freeflow conditions today – certainly, I’m not aware of any trials using a smartphone to carry out precise vehicle identification.

“I’m not saying that you cannot locate and identify a smartphone; that’s already done using several different protocols for traffic monitoring applications. But that doesn’t precisely tie a given phone to a given vehicle.”

Wurmser raises the possibility of smartphone applications being used in conjunction with license plate reading to provide unregistered, casual users with access to the freeflow charging process.

“What might happen is that unregistered users pass through a freeflow system and their licence plate details are captured. Roadside advertising will show short-dial numbers which drivers can use to access smartphone applications to give their vehicle and bank details, and make payments using their smartphones.”

The benefit in today’s charging and tolling environment of tag/OBU technology is that it is bespoke, whereas, with a smartphone, there are a lot of functions and variables which – today, at least – could affect performance and result in a lower quality of operation, he concludes.

“Tags cost far less than they did historically, while smartphone apps are much less efficient in operation than a traditional tag and beacon solution. Observations about the concessionaire not having to distribute tags don’t really apply – the cost advantage isn’t all that great. For now I only see smartphones as a solution for toll collection from casual users.”
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Kelly Gravelle, TransCore
“The smartphone is a powerful tool, one that we will use as appropriate” Kelly Gravelle, TransCore

To Dick Schnacke, vice president of Transcore, privacy and security remain issues, as evidenced, he says, by polls of prospective users.

“The various wireless media choices vary greatly in their ability to provide these attributes and current cellular technology is lacking in most cases. Only time will tell how users eventually balance the ease of using a simple device like a smartphone against the higher levels of personal protection afforded by the more sophisticated communication choices.”

According to Schnacke, the popular wisdom is that many wireless media will be available in the vehicle of the future – some in-built and others carried by the occupants. There will be lots of opportunities to pay by phone and the challenge will be to meet the application requirements reliably, securely and cost-effectively. There may be multiple systems within a vehicle that meet the needs of simple charging applications.

Choices will need to be made, either by the vehicle occupant or a media management entity.

“Cost always plays heavily in the choice of media,” Schnacke says. “This is especially true in the case of payment and charging services. Many people have an aversion to ‘paying to pay’ (using cellular plan airtime to pay bills).

A simple spot payment may go almost unnoticed but a dataintensive payment service like distributed road user charging may be seen as too costly over a payfor- use medium.”

Proliferation is also still an issue, he feels: “Less than 30% of people have a smartphone, versus almost 80% of people who have a cellular phone of some kind. So any application based on use of smartphones must by necessity be backed up by another fee collection medium, which adds cost and complexity.”

TransCore’s chief technology officer Kelly Gravelle says:

“The devil is in the detail and smartphones are likely to play a role on some tolling systems in the future. We think there are many issues that impact where and how a smartphone will impact tolling – issues such as battery life, driver distraction and enforcement to name a few. The smartphone is a powerful tool, however; one that we will use as appropriate and as the technology evolves.
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Iñigo Larraondo, Telvent
“Users need one entry point for mobility payments” Iñigo Larraondo, Telvent

Telvent’s tolling product manager Iñigo Larraondo sees mobile phone ‘apps’ as a means by which transport authorities, tolling operators and customers can connect to manage travel accounts, transactions and payments, in the near to mid-term at least. NFC he sees as being more applicable to public transport than tolling (Telvent already supports the technology through its back office system), while smartphones are a possible solution for distance-based charging in the longer term, as currently under trial in Minnesota in the US.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to the use of mobile devices,” Larraondo says. “On the one hand, users tend to always have them on their person, so operators have a 24/7 connection to their customers. On the other, it means having to contend with several operating systems, several telecoms suppliers, network coverage which can be patchy, and perceived privacy issues.

“Quite a number of things need to happen before the smartphone is truly viable for toll collection. We need lower data connection prices, the user interface has to be simple and users need one entry point for mobility payments, avoiding the need for different application for different operators. That implies interoperability between operators, transport authorities and concessionaires.”

Companies in this article

Kapsch TrafficCom
Now known as Schenider Electric

Transport for London

(Now Conduent)


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