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Highways Sans Toll Plazas

Future toll collection will be based on global positioning technology. A pilot project is already on with 500 vehicles

Highways Sans Toll Plazas

Photograph by Jaison G.

Beginning next year, vehicles will no longer need to stop at toll plazas to make payments. Instead, toll collection will be based on global positioning technology, Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said during the question hour in the Lok Sabha in mid-March. "Toll plaza free does not mean no toll fee. Toll charges will instead be collected through the global positioning technology. A camera will record the vehicle details at the point of entry to the toll section as well as exit from the toll section. The user will be charged only for the segment of the toll road used. We will implement this within the next one year," Gadkari had said.

The move aims to ensure a fully seamless, toll barrier-free movement for vehicles, enhanced audit control and centralised user accounts for the toll operator, and pilferage-free and transparent toll transactions, along with adherence to green norms by curtailing the idling fuel wastage.

FASTag-ing Highways

The announcement comes close on the heels of the government making toll collection mandatory through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology-based FASTag from February 16 2021. Till March, 93 per cent of the vehicles had adopted the FASTag method of toll collection. The technology was rolled out in April 2016.

FASTag, however, has one major limitation. It is not 100 per cent seamless. For the RFID tag to be scanned and electronic payment to be made, vehicles still need to stop at toll gates, even though for seconds. But, there's no doubt that it has reduced waiting time at toll gates and fuel wastage due to idling. According to data from the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), the waiting time at the toll plazas came down by 69 per cent in February 2021, compared to 2020. From 464 seconds in February last year, the waiting time is currently down to 150 seconds. This is set to lead to annual fuel savings of Rs 20,000 crore per year, and reduce carbon emission by five lakh tonnes per month.

However, there's still a long way to go, as far as fuel saving, carbon emission and seamless travel on the National Highway network of over 1,36,440 km is concerned. According to a joint study conducted by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta and logistics major Transport Corporation of India in 2014/15, India's annual additional fuel consumption cost due to delays is around $14.7 billion. That is where the role of global positioning technology-based tolling comes in.

How the System Works

Under the global positioning technology-based electronic toll collection, virtual gantries (a virtual road charging point equivalent to a traditional road charging toll gantry) monitor the entry and exit of vehicles on the tolled section. There is no toll collection booth or physical gantries mounted with high resolution cameras to scan the vehicles passing underneath them, registering their tags and registration numbers. Instead, vehicles will be equipped with an on-board global positioning device. Users' bank account and vehicle details, including registration number and type of vehicle, will be seeded into the device.

While using the toll road network, the on-board unit autonomously determines the position of the vehicle by using a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). GNSS essentially refers to a satellite or a constellation of satellites that provides positioning navigation and timing (PNT) services. It may be noted that while GPS is a GNSS owned by the US government, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), too, has developed its own regional GNSS named Navigation Indian Constellation (NavIC) consisting seven satellites, which is likely to be used for satellite-based electronic toll collection.

Once the toll section is identified, the on-board global positioning device begins a fully automated tolling process. The vehicle movement data is transmitted by the vehicle mounted unit to the back office of the service provider. The back office, in turn, determines the toll charges to be deducted based on parameters, including the distance of the tolled section used and the type of the vehicle, among others. For rolling out satellite-based tolling, India will soon start the process of geo fencing of the entire National Highway network in the country.

Both the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and the Indian Highways Management Company Ltd (IHMCL) have swung into action ever since Gadkari made the announcement in the Lok Sabha in March. While the ministry is conducting a pilot project on global positioning-based electronic tolling on the Delhi-Mumbai highway, the IHMCL has invited bids for consultant for GNSS-based tolling.

Elaborating on the details of the pilot project, Transport Secretary Giridhar Aramane told Business Today, "The government is currently conducting a pilot project for satellite-based tolling on the Mumbai-Delhi National Highway. As part of the project, 500 vehicles have been fitted with GPS for the purpose of satellite-based tolling. The pilot project is likely to be finished within a year, after which it will be scaled up on the National Highway network."

The government will soon come out with a policy for installation of global positioning devices in vehicles, he says. He, however, did not specify a timeline for retrofitting GPS on existing vehicles or mandatory fitting of GPS during manufacturing.

IHMCL, meanwhile, has invited bids for roping in consultants for the project. The scope of work includes finalising a report on standards and specifications of the proposed GNSS-based tolling system and drafting request for participation for selection of the implementing agency.

According to logistics companies that have benefitted in terms of turnaround time as well as fuel wastage due to idling of vehicles at the plazas in the wake of the FASTag rollout, satellite-based toll collection is a much-needed technology upgrade. However, there needs to be interoperability of the system at both National Highways as well as state highways, and a clear-cut policy on the installation of the on-board device on old vehicles, they add.

he Pros and Cons

"In our joint study with IIM Calcutta, we concluded that due to lack of electronic tolling the country loses about Rs 88,000 crore because of idling, waiting and fuel wastage by trucks at toll plazas. Since then, the government has taken a lot of steps to get FASTag rolling. Now, trucks are not stopping and we have better control on the toll paid. Turnaround time of trucks has also started to improve," says Transport Corporation of India Managing Director Vineet Agarwal.

Agrees Sushil Rathi, Chief Operating Officer, Mahindra Logistics. "With toll charges set to be deducted based on the movement of vehicles, the implementation of the GPS-based tolling system is one step further, which will ensure that users only pay for the distance covered, unlike the flat rates in place currently... This GPS-based system will make toll collection more efficient by allowing vehicle movements across the country to be tracked accurately," he says.

Spoton Logistics says electronic tolling has significantly curtailed the estimated time of arrival, and further technological intervention will only help the sector. "We have seen significant improvement on ETA (expected time of arrival) basis. With FASTag in place, ETA has improved by a minimum of two-four hours. Satellite-based tolling will bring additional advantages. We expect additional half an hour benefit on ETA with global positioning-based tolling," says Rajesh Kapase, Director, IT, Spoton Logistics.

Agarwal, meanwhile, points out the challenges that need to be addressed by the government. "All trucks have to have satellite positioning system on them. However, it is not being fully implemented. There is need for a policy on installing the device on the old fleet. Secondly, there are patches where GPS does not work. Thirdly, there is need for interoperability of the toll collection system at the state as well as the National Highway network."

In fact as far as challenges are concerned, the government is trying to overcome those associated with FASTag as well. Gadkari had said in Parliament that even after making the tags mandatory for highway users and charging double toll from those violating the norms since February 16 this year, penetration is till 7 per cent short. The ministry is investigating such cases.

But all said, electronic tolling through FASTag has set the cash registers ringing for the NHAI. According to the authority, daily toll collection through FASTag zoomed to Rs 108 crore on February 28 this year, compared to Rs 20 crore in August 2019. Similarly, the average daily toll collection has grown from Rs 73 crore in October 2019 to Rs 110 crore in March this year. The NHAI expects FASTag to increase revenue by Rs 10,000 crore per year.

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