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Drivers wary of the troll who collects the toll

by Philip Brasor

With new highway construction suspended and the prime minister pledging to abolish public corporations, the business of the Japan Highway Public Corp. at the moment is anything but business-as-usual. As both the overlord of the nation’s vehicle-choked intercity expressways and the troll who collects the system’s exorbitant tolls, the JHPC can probably assume that not many citizens are going to take its side in its battle to maintain the status quo.

In such an environment, the new Electronic Toll Collection system, which was expanded to 616 locations nationwide on Nov. 30, could be seen as a timely public relations tool. The automatic system has been in place at 175 toll plazas since last March, and even before then it was operating on a limited test basis. But Nov. 30 was, for all intents and purposes, the inaugural day, since that’s when companies who make the on-board devices started running ads in the national papers.

This device, which sits on the dashboard of your car, communicates with the special unmanned tollgates at the entrances and exits of expressways. ETC users do not need to hand cash or tickets to human toll collectors. Instead, the vehicle’s information is recorded by the system and later, tolls are charged to the driver’s credit card.

This means that ETC users do not have to stop at the tollbooth. They can simply drive straight through. The main purpose is to ease traffic congestion, 30 percent of which, according to the JHPC, is caused by cars stopping to pay tolls.

You don’t have to be an urban planner to understand that this particular purpose cannot be achieved until a substantial percentage of highway users sign up for the system. The problem for the JHPC is, how do you promote the system to individuals who won’t see its benefits immediately?

The advertisements for the new on-board devices, which will set you back between 29,000 yen and 45,000 yen (not including registration fees), do a good job of explaining the technical aspects. However, the practicality promoted in the ads is offset by media reports about the ETC’s performance so far.

These reports reveal flaws that the JHPC has promised to eliminate, though it may take some time. Most of the problems have to do with the gate. As with normal tollbooths, there is a gate that must open before the vehicle can proceed, and sometimes the gate in the ETC lane doesn’t rise properly due to “electronic confusion”: cars without the device mistakenly entering the ETC lane and screwing up the sensor; reflections that make the signal bounce erratically; and trailers that cause the sensor to count two vehicles instead of one.

The trickier obstacles to expanded usage are economic and psychological. Commercial vehicles are prime candidates for ETC participation, but the system as it stands has a drawback: no receipts. Taxis, charter buses and trucks need tollgate receipts right away because they usually hand them to their customers along with their bills and invoices. Having tolls listed on a credit card report at the end of the month is pointless for these drivers. In the ETC pamphlet put out by the JHPC and the Tokyo and Osaka regional highway authorities, drivers who need receipts are advised to use the “normal” tollbooths, but that would render the whole system meaningless.

Then there’s privacy. Expressways are already fitted with cameras to catch speeders, a development that some people find sinister in a Big Brother sort of way. The ETC system is even more systematic in this regard, since the data compiled by the electronic booths can be used to chart the travel habits of registered drivers. Advertisements mention something about “high-quality secret codes” that prevent “information leaks,” but “leak” is a vague term here.

Since ETC’s convenience can’t be honestly promoted until more people sign up for it, the main marketing appeal could be that it’s new — the future made real. A number of years ago, Hitachi ran a corporate commercial that showed a young motorcyclist stripping off his clothes in search of change to pay the toll, followed by an image of the same driver many years later zipping through a tollbooth and tooling down an empty stretch of highway without a care in the world.

With the advent of ETC, the new world of motoring envisioned in the ad has arrived, or, at least, it’s in sight. Of course, the future tends to look brighter the farther away it is, but one way to make new technologies more appealing is to invest them with this sort of romance.

The JHPC is pinning the success of ETC on convenience rather than romance, but until it becomes widespread most drivers will find it inconvenient. Last weekend, I used the Tohoku Expressway and, while exiting, had to dodge cars that cut in front of me to avoid the ETC lane, which is always placed in the middle of the plaza.

The best strategy would be to get auto manufacturers to include ETC as a standard or optional feature in new cars, which is one of the ways car navigation systems became popular. Navigation systems really are romantic, since there’s a perfectly sensible low-tech alternative: road maps.

There is no low-tech alternative to ETC, but once you start thinking in that direction you inevitably realize that the only sure way of easing traffic congestion is to do away with tolls altogether. Years ago, when the highway system was still in its infancy, the JHPC told people that someday it would be free. Whatever new world ETC heralds, it’s obviously one in which that possibility no longer exists.