Electronic Toll Collection (ETC): A Look at the Past, Present and Future

Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Economics, William S. Vickery introduced the U.S. to the concept of electronic toll collection (ETC) in the early 1960s. When birthing his brainchild, Vickery had to fight hard to convince Americans that this seemingly complicated method of toll payment would improve the existing system. Today, after seeing the fruits of his labor in play on roadways across the country, few would argue against Vickery’s vision.

In fact, the modern electronic toll payment system looks surprisingly similar to the one that Vickery proposed more than 50 years ago. Thanks to ETC, commuters are now able to enjoy zipping through toll plazas.

The past, present and future of tolls

One of the best-known ETC companies is E­ZPass, which runs the tollways in 16 American states in the Northeast, Midwest and Mid­Atlantic regions, as well as at the Canadian end of the Peace Bridge entering Ontario.

Because these toll plazas are so widespread, some people use the term “E­Z pass” as a synonym for every ETC in the same way that Kleenex has become synonymous with all facial tissue. A primary advantage of the company’s reach is that drivers with E­ZPass accounts can easily pay tolls in any of the states that use the transponder technology.

Still, other providers exist: ExpressToll in Colorado, SunPass in Florida and Good to Go! in Washington State, to name a few.

This variety presents a problem for commercial truckers, government employees and road-trippers who frequently traverse several states and use toll roads owned by different companies with incompatible equipment. These drivers will need to make a choice: stop and pay toll charges with cash or a credit card, collect and use a variety of ETC passes, or avoid tollways altogether.

For years, it seemed the implementation of a nationwide ETC system would be an impossibility. In fact, most toll roads are privately owned—although some companies manage express lanes on federal interstate highways, while some state governments own their individual ETC networks. That is now showing signs of shifting.

In 2012, President Obama passed the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP21). Several changes were made to transportation in that bill, one of which was a first strike in harmonizing ETC systems. MAP21 requires every Federally aided toll facility to “implement technologies or business practices that provide for the interoperability of electronic toll collection by October 1, 2016,” something never thought possible. While this is something that doesn’t make a completely universal system, it is a first step and one that has those who are affected by the change now scrambling to comply.

Regardless of whether they are publicly or privately owned, universal or unique, ETC companies must work in close partnership with state governments to ensure that drivers adhere to the rules of the tollways. Developments in high­ speed camera and vehicle­ detection technology allow systems to run smoothly, but the intervention of state law enforcement is still necessary where violations occur. Technological advancements will also increase the role of government in monitoring and enforcing toll compliance, as well as developing intelligent transportation systems.

Technology behind ETC

One of the technologies behind electronic toll collection systems is radio frequency identification

(RFID). RFID tags are used for vehicle identification of cars equipped with stickers or transponder devices containing the technology. An antenna in the toll lane communicates with these tags to identify vehicles for the purpose of toll collection.

However, RFID is just one form of automatic vehicle identification (AVI) technology utilized by ETC companies and government agencies. In fact, vehicles that drive through ETC tollbooths or full­-speed ETC lanes are monitored by a variety of other means including cameras, license plate recognition software and auto-­accessed DMV records.

For instance, high-­speed closed ­circuit television cameras capture license plate images and, sometimes, even photographs of the driver. This enables ETC companies to coordinate with state governments and use video analytics to fine violators or to charge “license plate tolls” to all motorists, even those without transponders.

This type of tracking depends on communication between toll plaza computers, its associated central office workstations and government databases. Since DMV records use license plate information to identify vehicles based on registration, an automobile owner can be fined for toll            violations even if another driver evaded payment using his or her car. And government agencies could be charged if their employees use ETC lanes improperly.

Although the old ETC technology works well, companies are already investing in the development and testing of new technologies. For instance, Xerox, which owns 50 percent of the U.S. market share, uses infrared cameras and advanced computer recognition to spot solo drivers who try to slip through express lanes intended specifically for high­-occupancy vehicles.

Aside from camera identification, some RFID tags are both readable and writable, meaning antennas can record the date and time a particular vehicle drives past. This allows toll plazas to collect and record information about when and where cars containing RFID tags enter and exit the roadways. And the new initiatives would pave the way for even more comprehensive travel monitoring.

Many major cities track license plates using closed­-circuit television cameras. While this method of surveillance has been a source of alarm for some who fear government overreach, it      appears that the benefit of the application outweighs the concerns. For instance, this technology allows for the monitoring of suspicious vehicles, making it easier for law enforcement agencies to covertly track potential criminals.

These advancements require a judicial response. Not only must government agencies work to determine how to apply these techniques, they must also monitor their use in order to ensure they aren’t mishandled. Not surprisingly, ETC technology has been at the forefront of this discussion.

The impact of electronic tolls on the future of driving

There are several reasons why utilizing ETC systems is beneficial for both consumers and government agencies. In short, ETC technology:

  • Prevents traffic jams
  • Reduces line length at toll booths
  • Improves fuel consumption
  • Reduces environmental impact
  • Enhances security

To elaborate, the vehicle identification capabilities of both RFID technology and high-­speed cameras are a boon for security. Thanks to their use, police departments and national security agencies can track down potential criminal fugitives or cars involved in Amber and Silver alerts more easily.

What’s more, requiring drivers to stop at toll plazas is a major source of traffic congestion. In fact, 30 percent of overcrowding on tollways occurs near the payment gates themselves, reports ITS Technology Enhancement Association. With ETC systems in place, many drivers don’t need to stop at all, alleviating a major source of traffic jams.

The use of ETC methods also has a financial benefit. In most cases, drivers can actually save money with an E­ZPass or similar devices. This stems from the reduction of manpower once required to run toll booths, a savings that is passed on in part to drivers who utilize these unmanned lanes.

Who would have believed that an idea born 50 years ago could so substantially impact the lives of travelers across the country? As technology advances and additional improvements to ETC revolutionize this facet of the industry, the benefits are expected to continue growing in both number and magnitude.