Toll Plazas: Where FASTags have fallen short and why India's new dream might prove harder to realise

From the speeches of Nitin Gadkari, the Union Cabinet Minister for Road Transport and Highways (MORTH), we get the sense that India will make a transition from FASTag to a fully automated toll collection mechanism. But it presents its own set of challenges...
A number of vehicles seen lined up at a toll plaza on the Hyderabad-Vijayawada national highway due to the festive rush. (File Photo | Express)
A number of vehicles seen lined up at a toll plaza on the Hyderabad-Vijayawada national highway due to the festive rush. (File Photo | Express)

There was once a toll to driving through toll roads on highways. To help ease it came the pan-India rollout of a FASTag based system in December 2019. More than four years later, we are now talking of a next-gen Global Navigation Satellite System based toll plazas. But how much of a difference have we seen?

I was wondering about this while being stuck at Mahasamudram Toll Plaza (MTS) on National Highway 4 (now renumbered as 69) in Andhra Pradesh. This is a key stop, located around 170 km east of the Karnataka capital on the Bengaluru-Chennai highway. With an ocean of vehicles waiting to pass, there was total chaos on January 13 during the Makar Sankranti weekend.

This is not unique; several other corridors across India-Mumbai-Pune, Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Jaipur, Delhi-Agra, to name a few -- are faced with the same dire situation where lakhs of vehicles are expected to smoothly pass via toll plazas, without causing the lane queues to extend, without creating additional pressure on traffic movement, but can’t.

Indeed, easy-flowing traffic is an ideal-state scenario, but the reality is quite different.

The overwhelming number of vehicles at Mahasamudram resulted in two things: one, commuters kept changing lanes thinking it will reduce wait time, with some even following an ambulance to take undue advantage of the cleared lane; and two, the officials opened up the emergency services lane meant for ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles to regular traffic. This did not ease the situation, it worsened it.

Since the emergency lane did not have RFID readers to deduct money from FASTag wallets, officials photographed each vehicle as it passed using some other device. No immediate toll charges were deducted. When the tolls were levied, drivers realised that the details were made up, with a different time mentioned in the receipt than the time they actually were at the toll plaza. Neither did the officials take into consideration the time taken in the lane queue.

Citizens’ rights at Toll Plazas

Why is this important? Citizens must be made aware that the Government of India (GOI) has waived toll fees for commuters affected by malfunctions in the collection infrastructure.

This is not all. Let’s recall the measures taken by GOI.

On May 7, 2018, the Government of India first introduced a rule that permits FASTag users to pass through tolls at no charge if their FASTag is operational but the electronic toll infrastructure is malfunctioning. Under these circumstances, vehicles are granted passage with a zero-transaction receipt.

A number of vehicles seen lined up at a toll plaza on the Hyderabad-Vijayawada national highway due to the festive rush. (File Photo | Express)
Udupi man attempts to recharge FASTag account, loses Rs 1 lakh

There is also the “three-minute rule”. Right to Information (RTI) queries have revealed that this rule stipulates that if a vehicle is held in a queue for more than three minutes, it can proceed without payment. A directive issued on May 26, 2021, when FASTag had achieved widespread usage and was expected to eliminate wait times, introduced a further measure.

This notification states that if a vehicle is delayed in a queue for over 10 seconds or is queued more than 100 meters from the toll collection point (a distance marked by yellow lines at the booth), it is entitled to pass without paying the toll.

This exemption applies to all vehicles not already exempt under current regulations. This is a progressive effort to address inefficiencies and improve the tolling experience for road users.

Although these exemptions exist for delays exceeding the specified time at toll booths, many travellers are unaware of their rights. Toll representatives and officials are seen arguing with commuters as either they themselves are not aware of these rules or they have revenue targets to meet and are therefore loath to giving these concessions.

In sharp contrast is the efficiency shown by the same officials when a vehicle contravenes any of the Fastag regulations.

What went wrong at Mahasamudram Toll Plaza

In the case of my commute via the MTS on January 13, a dubious entry was recorded, indicating that I passed through it on both sides three days after the journey. This entry was falsely made using a photograph of my vehicle, including its FASTag, taken while I was in the vicinity. I was erroneously charged for a round trip, even though I was 200 km from the plaza.

My case is not isolated; it likely affected several others who crossed the toll on the same day.

The highway administrator and project director admitted that the festive period's rush prevented immediate toll entries, leading to delayed records, and no rules related to unfair waiting time in tolls were considered during festival hours.

This explanation is evidently inadequate.I have sought a refund for the delay caused in the queue, which is pending.

Helplines are not uniform

Using the FASTag mechanism for toll transactions seems straightforward; ensuring their accuracy is not. This is compounded by the fact that people are not aware of the helpline available for reporting such discrepancies. Instead of relying on a centralised helpline like 1033, drivers are expected to contact their respective FASTag providers to lodge complaints.

This fragmented approach is a policy failure, and can discourage people from reporting incidents, which hinders the effective utilisation of these available measures. Besides, commuters experience resentment as they feel there is no redress mechanism (there is one, just that it is not advertised enough nor is there any signage at toll plazas to inform commuters).

Transition to Automated Toll Systems

From the speeches of Nitin Gadkari, the Union Cabinet Minister for Road Transport and Highways (MORTH), we get the sense that India will make a transition from FASTag to a fully automated toll collection mechanism called Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

This advanced technology, paired with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, will identify vehicles entering a geofenced zone, utilising GNSS systems installed in newcars.

However, this shift presents challenges for older cars and other vehicles, a problem the ANPR technology addresses by efficiently reading number plates at high speeds.

A number of vehicles seen lined up at a toll plaza on the Hyderabad-Vijayawada national highway due to the festive rush. (File Photo | Express)
Future of travel is GPS-based toll collection

Challenges of proposed automated system

This advancement promises greater transparency over the actual time spent on roads and in the accuracy of toll collections. Yet, concerns linger over the availability of accurate and standardised GNSS devices,as well as the inherent errors in GNSS systems under certain environmental conditions. Besides, ANPR technology in India, available on roads, faces challenges when identifying non-number plates (especially when the High-Security Registration Platesor HSRP regime is not fully enforced across the country) and over-speeding vehicles.

A particularly pressing issue is the direct debit of toll charges from drivers’ bank accounts. This is worrisome due to the potential discrepancies and errors in toll booth collections, raising questions about the reliability and fairness of such direct transactions, not to mention fears about the safety of bank account itself.

As we navigate these technological advancements, addressing these concerns will be crucial for a smooth and equitable transition to the new toll collection system.

Overcoming technological challenges

The move towards a fully automated, non-stop toll detection system, while aimed at enhancing public welfare by reducing travel time and increasing transparency, comes with significant technical challenges and complexities.

The transition from manual toll collection to the semi-automated FASTag system took approximately four years to achieve widespread adoption. The shift to a completely automated system may present even greater challenges, given the technological complexity involved.

These can be managed with the appropriate hardware, software, and processes. Successfully implementing this system has the potential to benefit the public significantly. It would enable drivers to pay only for their time on specific roads, facilitating quicker travel. Additionally, the data gathered from this system could provide valuable insights into traffic patterns and densities, benefiting both the public and the government. This could play a crucial role in enhancing the overall efficiency of the country's transportation system.

The most pressing concern remains whether the public and the requisite vehicle infrastructure are adequately prepared to transition to an automated toll system by as early as March 2024.

The Government's plan to roll out this new toll collection system so swiftly will likely result in initial chaos. The effectiveness of the proposed system is being questioned in comparison to the system used in Japan, which only transmits vehicle identity through a dedicated 5G short-range transponder and powerful receiver fixed at toll points, without collecting any personal information (like position and time on the road throughout the journey).

Given the limited time, we need to carefully consider the requirements for this project from effective systems used in many European countries. This includes deciding on the onboard unit (OBU) that will be installed in the vehicle to transmit its position, choosing the navigation system to be used, determining the necessary mobile network, developing a plan for the transition period, clarifying privacy concerns including direct bank detection of money from bank accounts.

Conclusion

Careful planning and effective communication are essential to ensure a successfully transitioning to an automated toll system and to avoid the need to switch to a different system in the near future.

The authorities can engage in more thoughtful deliberation and outreach, ensuring the public is well-informed about this new system.

Proactively addressing potential issues and highlighting the benefits of improved travel efficiency will facilitate a smooth shift to this innovative framework, ultimately enhancing the road travel experience for all. This strategic approach will help minimise disruptions and foster public trust and acceptance of the new system, paving the way for a more efficient and positive impact on road transportation. 

Dr Y Nithiyanandam is Professor and the head of the Geospatial Research Programme at The Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.

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