How America's growing connectivity will affect the toll industry

Vehicle connectivity and automation and mobile devices will provide significantly greater safety and mobility, and undoubtedly will change how toll highways are designed and operated in the future.

U.S. DOT focuses on safety 
Highway safety is at the forefront of the U.S. Department of Transportation Connected Vehicle Program, which uses technology to enable vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Using dedicated short-range communications, connected vehicles communicate with each other and the infrastructure 10 times per second, providing drivers almost instantaneous warnings and information. The U.S. DOT estimates that connected vehicles can improve outcomes for more than 80 percent of vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers.

Their impact on the toll industry is uncertain but potentially disruptive. Following are what experts predict may happen.

Agencies may become broader, regional mobility partners
The toll industry is watching connected vehicle developments to determine if vehicle-to-infrastructure technology might be used for tolling purposes. Of course, it likely will be 20 years before all vehicles are equipped with dedicated short-range communications or similar communications. The slow U.S. adoption rate will restrict its short-term use as a toll technology. 

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority will use dedicated short-range communications technology to alert wrong-way drivers entering toll facilities and to support mobility applications on its expressways and surrounding arterial roads. The most unique aspects of the Tampa Hillsborough project involve pedestrian, transit and trolley conflicts in downtown Tampa, where expressways meet urban streets. This represents a shift in thinking for a toll agency – from toll authority to a broader regional mobility partner. 

Mobile devices could become universal tolling platforms
Most travelers carry mobile devices that keep them connected no matter what mode of transportation they may be using. For that reason, mobile devices likely will become a universal platform for tolling, payment processing and road-user charges. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous, especially in regions where tolling is practical, and new apps debut daily to support mobility, mode choice, route choice, parking and multimodal payment processes. Some agencies, including the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, already are evaluating mobile technology for tolling. 

This raises a larger question: Why do we need dedicated short-range communications for vehicle-to-infrastructure communications when connectivity through smartphones likely will become the default solution? The answer is: The type of communication will depend on the use case. Some applications require superfast, supersecure communications. In those instances, dedicated short-range communications may be better suited than cellular. Each case will have different requirements that will help determine the communications medium to be employed. Examples include cellular, either embedded in the vehicle or on the person, satellite radio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or dedicated short-range communications. Almost all travelers have access to one or more of these channels.

Virtual toll gantries could replace physical gantries 
Because all new cars have GPS, it is only a matter of time before the tolling industry can install virtual toll gantries. Using digital mapping and GPS, these “geo-fences” could assess tolls as vehicles cross them. Agencies could implement similar solutions for priced-managed lanes. Issues, such as enforcement or leakage, still would need to be addressed, but they should not slow progress. The potential savings for toll authorities could be significant.

Road-user charging could allow universal tolling on highways
Vehicle and personal connectivity offer the potential for “universal tolling” on highways, and payment collection for other modes of transportation. In fact, Oregon and California are piloting road-user charging mechanisms that could be an alternative to the fuel tax as a means of collecting transportation revenue. 

The toll industry has the institutional knowledge, processes and systems to support a technology-based approach to road-user charging. 

Mobility solutions will increase
Connected vehicles offer opportunities to collect more real-time data about traffic conditions, travel patterns, mode choices, trip times and other mobility measures. As a result, toll agencies likely will be inundated with data, and may need to augment processes and systems to collect, transmit, store, aggregate and analyze it. Developing performance measures based on toll agency objectives will help narrow the amount of data that is collected and analyzed. 

As the amount of meaningful data available to agencies increases, so, too, will the arsenal of available mobility solutions. For example, real-time data may enable demand-based pricing, next-generation integrated corridor management, active traffic and demand management and multimodal strategies. 

Traffic and revenue forecasts will need to be modified
Vehicle automation will enable, for example, mobility-on-demand services and vehicle sharing. While most cars are parked 95 percent of the day, automated vehicles could be used 95 percent of the day. For example, after your automated vehicle drops you off at work, it could take your children to school or shuttle your aging parents to medical appointments. Some experts predict the number of vehicles in use will drop by 40 percent in this shared-vehicle economy. The impact on future traffic and toll revenue forecasts is uncertain. What is certain is that current models do not take such scenarios into consideration. 

Facilities will gain capacity 
As the level of automation and number of automated vehicles increase, crash rates will plummet. If cars don’t crash, toll and highway authorities will be able to squeeze as much as 400 percent more capacity out of existing facilities by decreasing separation between vehicles, doubling peak-hour speeds and reducing lane widths. Agencies should keep this in mind when evaluating investments in new capacity. If cars don’t crash, agencies also can re-evaluate design standards for clear zones and other highway safety features. The need to acquire right of way may decrease as a result.  

Managed lanes could be an interim step
Based on the U.S. fleet turnover rate of about 20 years, it likely will be at least 25 years before most vehicles are automated. In the meantime, the period when automated, semi-automated and non-automated vehicles share the roads will present new challenges for toll agencies. For example, it may be necessary to separate automated and non-automated vehicles for safety purposes. Managed lanes for automated vehicles are a potential solution. 

As with today’s priced-managed lanes, agencies could charge a premium for use of automated vehicle lane(s) because:

•    Vehicles in these lanes will travel harmoniously at higher speeds.
•    They will enjoy greater safety. 
•    Occupants of automated vehicles can remain connected and productive during travel.

Agencies should prepare today
To prepare for emerging mobility solutions, toll executives can:

•    Stay abreast of changing technology and how it affects toll operations. (Some toll agencies have chief technology officers who stay current on this topic.)
•    Attend International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association conferences about technology.
•    Look for opportunities to participate in pilot projects that showcase the toll facility.
•    Realize that not all emerging technologies will benefit every toll agency. Look for those that have direct application to your customer and bottom line.

America’s growing connectivity will provide significantly greater safety and mobility, and undoubtedly will change how toll highways are designed and operated in the future.