Thursday , 14 November 2019

Electronic Tolling Strategies for Indian Highways

Making the opening address at the Session on Highway Technology. Abhay Damle, Joint Secretary-Transport, MoRTH, explained challenges in technology implementation and the various technologies being put in place.

Tolling has been a very, debatable issue as far as the road and road users are concerned. This is an area which probably in not liked by the users but then if you want good roads, the cost of good roads has to be borne by somebody. The idea of tolling is very simple that the stretches which are being used, have to be paid for. There are veritable concepts which have come across in recent years and all along, the Ministry and the various states, have been blamed for not having an effective and efficient tolling solution .

Now world over, we have seen that tolling has become absolutely seamless and it is also the vision of the Ministry that tolling must absolutely seamless, efficient and error free. These are the three components around which all the solutions have been working.

Why is Electronic tolling important? Our logistic cost is one of the highest in the world. If the logistic cost can be reduced, it is going to be a real saving. If the fuel is lost, if the time is lost and if the vehicle is lying idle nobody is gaining. The slow track speeds on highways and delays at toll plazas cost the country about Rs 50,000Cr a year.

Jensen Huang who is the President of NVIDIA, has said that artificial intelligence was nothing but how we could identify the waste and how we could use it for our best purposes. So that is what efficiency in tolling is all about.

Though manual tolling works in some cases, we cannot always handle peak traffic and continue with the existing manpower. So, naturally electronic tolling having been very common across the world and India has also chosen that.

Of course, there are issues when electronic tolling gets intercepted by the manual tolling, that becomes a very big issue and that is something which NHAI is trying to resolve. But then there is a tremendous scope available; of course, we would not like to even have a 6-second wait, we would like to have a wait literally zero, means at a speed of 60 one can pass through the toll plaza, that should be the ideal scenario. But then even if you are able to bring 90% reduction in the travel time by adopting complete e-tolling solutions, it is going to be a reformative step for the country.

There were issues of connectivity. The real time connectivity was always an issue because toll plazas are mostly in the remote locations. As per our norms now, these have to be at least 10 kms away from the municipal limits. So, when we talk about that, naturally we are forcing the toll plazas to be in a place where the connectivity would not be very good. If you provide for the OFCs the linkages get broken very often and then there is a disconnection and disruption. So, often you have to have a back-end good electricity support.

So, electronic tolling has faced initial teething problems but then having got stabilized, it really received a good impetus. The Ministry started with giving certain discounts of 10% and 7.5% and in the third year, 5% to incentivise tolling. As a result, it has really taken an upbeat and as we go more towards PPP, BOT and even EPC projects have started tolling.

When we are talking of the future of Indian highways, we have the vision of reaching at 50 corridors from the present six corridors. From 40% freight on NHs, we will go to 70% – 80% Freight on NHs and 500 districts connected by 4- lane highways in the next five years. National Highways will be doubled to 200,000km. The transport sector is going to see a boom, as the present-day transport in terms of cars, which typically comprise 70% of the traffic in terms of numbers, is going for a big increase.

The number of transactions at the toll plazas are increasing, they are increasing at a very fast rate. The number of vehicles passing through the highways are increasing almost at the rate of 10% every year. This kind of increase can be tackled only with some kind of digital solutions and the manual solutions will probably have to go away.

It is noted that the cost of land acquisition is never charged to the customer. There is always a built-in subsidy given to the user, even if the roads are tolled. So, tolling is just to recover a fraction of the cost, not the entire cost, that is the costing arithmetic. So, whenever we talk about tolling, people have that misconception but that is not true. It doesn’t really meet the entire project cost, it meets a part of it over a longer period. But it helps in discounting the cost of the projects over the period.

What is the status now? From December 1, 2017, all the new vehicles were mandated to be fitted with RFID tags or the Fastag. That was the game changer because every new vehicle sold in the country came with a pre-fitted RFID tag having some balance. There are 32.50lakh FastTags fixed on vehicles. Percentage-wise, the collection would not have increased by that figure, because the number of vehicles sold are more in terms of cars and less in terms of heavy vehicles but soon, we will start seeing the penetration.

Twenty five percent of todays collection is being done through e-tolling and we hope that it will be substantial by the end of this year. The ministry is already working in making it more efficient.

The FasTag was bank-specific, that was a big issue. IHMCL and NHAI along with NPCI is working on the solution to create a bank agnostic Fastag and that is going to be a game changer because anybody having an account with any bank would be able to use the Fastag without really tagging himself with a particular bank.

As far as the technology is concerned it is fairly robust; it has not faced any glitches so far. The connectivity issues also have been broadly sorted out. The challenge lies at the backend to reduce the reporting time and try to bring it real time as fast as possible.

There are certain issues with tolling as on date because we toll for certain stretches of the road. If you are tolling for say 45 kms of the road stretch then somebody may be using it for just 10 kms or 5 kms but then still the person has to pay for the entire tolling stretch. It causes a natural discontent amongst the users. This is a problem, since we do not have access-controlled roads on the NH mostly.

Potential Technologies

Basically there are two kinds of solutions which are available. One solution is we are tolling for the entire stretch of the toll-able road. So, those solutions would typically lie in terms of NFC; we have POC machines at the toll plaza or you can pay through your NFC cards. Government has already finalized with NPCI the specifications for National Common Mobility Card also. Now, if the NCMC feature is available, then all the cards will be NFC and they will have a wallet on the card. So, when you have a wallet on the card, the payment is real time and there is no delay in accounting also as far as the card is concerned.

Another technology is GPS-GPRS based that is accurate and fast. In this case you don’t need any infrastructure on the road. Most of the transport vehicles already have a GPS device mounted on it. From April 1, 2019 all the passenger transport vehicles will also be fitted with GPS devices. From the backend the command and control centre, the vehicles can be tracked — their entry to and exit from the Highways.

If we have the highway geofenced, then we can exactly work out the toll-able stretch of the highway. That particular stretch will be utilised for the purpose of tolling and the GPS account is connected to the backend with the bank. Now this appears to be the best solution for the future but then there are definitely other solutions, like ANPR. This may be installed at every 5km interval or 10km interval on the National Highways so that the vehicle can be charged for the stretch covered. Pilot was conducted, and accuracy is found higher than 95%. Its combination with FasTag can bring accuracy close to 99%.

The vehicle with GPS device or ANPR reader will have to be connected to a valid bank account. If the bank account doesn’t really throw up the correct balance or it doesn’t have the balance, then an alarm will be raised and then vehicles can be either intercepted or a demand notice can be sent to the person at his address. However, the biggest challenge here is the nonstandard number plates that we have on the vehicles. The supreme court has already mandated and hopefully within six months we should be able to see number plates being standardized, put on all the new as well as old vehicles.

Once the vehicle is identified correctly, then it can be put in the particular tolling category and accordingly. We have a very robust database on the Vaahan platform of the Ministry which is developed by NIC. It has a database of almost 24Cr vehicles.

Then there are mobile-based solutions/ideas — Bluetooth/Wi-Fi/ Ultra Cars — for solution for sporadic highway user. These are yet to be fully tested in diverse conditions.

GPS technology, under trial currently, if found successful, then people will opt for it and we may probably look at putting it in place for all. That will be the most ideal solution for the short distance commuters who are always aggrieved and who always have problems at the tolling plazas.

Of course, there were initial resistance because of multiple reasons for not really adopting the electronic toll collection but now I think everyone has come on board and people have realized that this is the best for everyone.

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