Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 8 News List

ETC hints at Big Brother system

By Huang Hsu 黃旭

Amid a wave of resistance from road users, the Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system was put into effect on major expressways last Friday by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC). But the utilization rate for the ETC lanes, open only to vehicles fitted with special on-board units (OBUs), was limited.

It is estimated that the number of drivers using the new system is only around 30,000, far short of the MOTC's target. The dissatisfaction expressed through the Consumers' Foundation and through e-mail petitions has proved a setback for the system's contractor, Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co (FETC). In a tug-of-war between FETC and consumers, the salient issue has been price, but the issue of the system's future has also come up and is certainly worthy of further consideration.

The e-mail petition has served its purpose by focusing attention on the high price of OBUs, and should be sufficient to convince drivers with even a limited awareness of consumer rights to oppose the implementation of the new system. FETC misjudged its market, believing that people would be willing to pay a relatively high price for quicker passage through the ETC turnpikes. Unfortunately, most drivers seem to believe that the new ETC gates are not much better than the original toll collection system.

Publicity for the ETC focuses on the fact that instead of having to stop and pay the toll, drivers can pass through the turnpike at the relatively high speed of 40kph. But there is more to the introduction of this system than just this convenience. Communications Magazine recently reported that following the current plan, a distance-based ETC system will be used by 2010.

In other words, there will be a shift from the current system, which charges a fee based on the number of times a vehicles passes through a turnpike, to a distance-based metering system. It suggests that an ETC system using infrared technology will be installed at all entrance and exit ramps, and drivers will be charged based on the distance they have traveled on the tollway.

This is clearly setting the stage for the introduction of private roads -- the current project is just the first phase of a much wider computerization of toll collection.

The introduction of distance-based ETC will have an impact on the real-estate market. A longer trip along the expressway will demand a higher toll. But under the great banner of "user pays," ETC technology is also worthy of our attention.

One option for toll payment would be the stored-value EasyCard used by the Taipei MRT. But the anonymity of such a system restricts its business functionality, or reduces its convenience. The back-end of the ETC billing system requires access to personal data so that bank accounts can be directly debited.

Cooperation with banks might even allow the OBU to be used as a means of paying for gasoline, parking fees, entrance tickets and even motel bills. Such a system would provide the requisite convenience, but the cost of introducing it would see a shift away from the anonymity of payment systems such as EasyCard.

Even if we don't mind that our level of interpersonal interaction is being reduced, we should be concerned about the personalized surveillance that new technology has made possible. Every time we pass a roadside sensor, our accounts can be debited by toll-collection corporations, and ultimately, when the technology becomes fully mature, every move we make will be recorded on the pretext of improving transportation or public order.

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