IoT Blog

Why Road User Charging Systems Need a More Intelligent Distributed IoT Solution

ETC, Connectivity, LPWA, IoT, Transportation

Benoit Tournier

Benoit Tournier

Director of Marketing, Transportation & IoT Solutions

In addition to e-books, on-demand video and GPS devices, one of the future technological innovations envisioned by AT&T in its famous early 1990s series of “ You Will ” commercials was an Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system that enabled drivers to  wirelessly pay their tolls as they drove through a toll booth . While that prediction was perhaps not as bold as the others (Europe began developing similar ETC systems in the 1980s), today we take for granted E-ZPass in the U.S. and similar systems where drivers can enter toll roads, HOV lanes, bridges and tunnels without having to stop at a tollbooth to pay. Typically, these systems require a driver to put an OBU (On Board Unit, which can be called transponder or “edge” IoT device) in their vehicle and, when their vehicle passes through a toll booth, the toll booth wirelessly connects to the edge to automatically deduct the toll from their bank account. 

Today, governments want to take these ETC solutions one step further, with more sophisticated systems that not only eliminate the need for toll booths, but also enable governments to charge for road usage based on a variety of factors, including time of day, vehicle weight, distance driven, type of road and the pollution produced by the vehicle. These new systems enable governments to implement programs that charge tolls that better reflect the vehicle’s impact on road infrastructure, traffic and the environment, helping them:

  • Reduce congestion during peak periods of the day by lowering tolls during low-traffic periods;
  • Reduce congestion in specific areas by lowering tolls on specific roads;
  • Encourage individuals and companies to purchase low-carbon-emission vehicles by charging higher tolls for vehicles that pollute more; and
  • Transition the source of revenue financing road infrastructure from fuel-based taxes to toll on road usage, which will include any type of vehicle (from electric vehicles with small tolls to high-gas-consumption vehicles with high tolls).

In both the U.S. and Europe, governments are experimenting with new ETC systems that enable them to charge tolls based on distance, weight, pollution and time of day. For example, the California Road Charge Pilot Program and the Washington Road Usage Charge Pilot Project are exploring how such ETC systems could be used to replace gas taxes they currently use to fund roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure with tolls based on the distance drivers travel or the amount of time they are on the road. Germany’s Toll Collect and Belgium’s Kilometre Charging System are ETC systems that assess tolls on commercial trucks based on the type of truck, the type of roads and the distance driven, using data from many virtual toll gates across the country and a location-aware transponder inside the truck.

In the ETC industry, accessing and collecting data at the edge from disparate, heterogenous vehicles and transferring that data efficiently to the cloud to perform analytics and action is still the greatest challenge. Business-critical data collected from the edge cannot be erased, jammed or corrupted. Key challenges the transportation industry needs to overcome to maximize the transformative value of the IoT include: 

Scaling Infrastructure

Building the backbone infrastructure to connect edge devices, transponders and OBUs from various suppliers remains complex; scaling and provisioning these systems is difficult. The infrastructure must be robust, including urban and rural coverage, providing the capacity to transmit data to potentially millions of edge devices, and resilient and secure connectivity that can evolve over time with business and environmental changes. 

Managing Incoming Data

Data collected from the edge is business critical for governments, so there cannot be issues with missed, corrupted or erroneous data. The number of connected vehicles is growing. Over time, this will result in a massive tsunami of incoming data, requiring a cost-prohibitive increase in processing and analytics capabilities on premises or in the cloud to deal with the information collected from the edge. In addition, more bandwidth is required to transmit this data, impacting the performance of the critical backbone infrastructure when, in the end, much of the raw data turns out to be unnecessary. Huge amounts of data from vehicles is stored by transport authorities but is currently not leveraged.

Optimizing Development Resources

The focus on operation enablement and expert developer resources is shifting from a complex embedded world (from “fat edge” to “deep edge”) to an abstracted cloud environment that requires a web-based tool chain, efficient protocols, and API connectors to manage change in real-time.  

Today, technology gaps prevent IoT application developers from overcoming these limitations and harnessing the full power of edge-to-cloud data collection and analytics. The solution must add value to the data at the edge by contextualizing it to reduce bandwidth and optimize resources to improve infrastructure performance, and address the limitations and deficiencies mentioned above. This includes:

Deep Edge Devices Connected Through LPWA Networks

Edge devices must be able to recognize and transfer only valuable data or alarms, organized in streams of events. By filtering, storing and transferring the events that decision-makers need, when they need it, edge devices can save resources and optimize their power use. Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) network technologies are expanding the functionality of these systems, while also making them less expensive and easier to develop, deploy and manage. The main benefit of LPWA technologies, such as LTE-M, is that they reduce the cost of the IoT edge devices that are installed in vehicles. This significantly improves the ROI of rolling out new ETC systems. In addition, LPWA has the added benefit of delivering better connectivity in rural areas and in tunnels, enabling value-added services, such as crash notification for faster emergency response.

Linking Data Flows for Contextualization

By linking different flows of data (weather conditions, device tampering, downtime) and aggregating this information in the cloud, we can create new event streams, translating to new actions at the edge and more efficient operations.

Adapting to Changing Conditions

IoT solutions for the transportation industry must be intelligent and dynamic enough to adapt the rules to changing conditions, including traffic congestion and centralized or decentralized operation in real-time. A cloud developer needs to be able to do all of this securely with the same set of web-based toolchains scaling from a small pilot to millions of vehicles. 

The ideal IoT solution for the transportation industry will use distributed intelligence processing between the edge and the cloud to support ETC and enhanced Intelligent Transport Services (ITS).

Sierra Wireless Under the Hood

Sierra Wireless is a pioneer in the development of LPWA and data orchestration technologies and offers developers a comprehensive set of device-to-cloud IoT solutions for building and deploying next-generation ETC systems. For example, Sierra Wireless IoT modules can connect to LPWA (and 4G, 3G and 2G) networks, allowing developers to more easily build cost-efficient yet powerful IoT edge devices for their ETC applications. The WP Series of modules also features an ARM core application processor with dedicated Flash and RAM running Legato®, enhancing security while reducing system complexity. In addition, the WP Series’ integrated GNSS receiver enables tracking and location-based services. Its integration with the open hardware platform also supports rapid ETC device prototyping with industrial-grade components, while its integration with Sierra Wireless’ AirVantage® IoT platform lays the foundation for future data orchestration capabilities.

In the early 1990s, we envisioned a future where you could drive through a toll booth without stopping to pay. Today, new IoT technologies are enabling a future where toll booths disappear, and governments are able to assess tolls designed to help reduce traffic congestion and pollution and better align vehicle road use with road maintenance costs. It might not make as exciting a commercial as previous ETC system innovations, but this use of the IoT in the transportation sector is likely to have an even more profound impact on the time we spend waiting in traffic, on our environment and on government budgets.

Start with Sierra to find out more about how Sierra Wireless’ device-to-cloud solutions can power the next generation of ETC systems.

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