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ITS is Commercialized: ETC -- Editorial Staff

ITS is becoming commercial


The abbreviation ITS (Intelligent Transport System) is often heard these days. ITS is an advanced road and traffic system in which IT commands both roads and automobiles. In ITS, both roads and automobiles must be equipped to handle the system. The roads in ITS are called "smart ways" and the cars are called "smart cars."

There are many new systems in ITS, such as navigation systems, AHS (Advanced Highway System, also known as Advanced Cruise-Assist System) and ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) systems. In Japan, car navigation systems and IVCS (Inter-Vehicle Communication Systems) are spreading.

The automatic toll collection system, called ETC (Electronic Toll Collection), seems to have penetrated very rapidly.

By editorial staff report team

ETC trials started

When you drive from Tokyo to Haneda airport on the highway, you will find a lane marked "ETC only." This is a trial use of the ETC system that started on April 24, 2000, on the Metropolitan Highway and the East-Kanto Highway. Trial uses have also been conducted on Okinawa Highway since June 28, 2000, when the Kyushu-Okinawa summit meeting was held, and on Fukuoka Highway since July 1, 2000.

ETC allows drivers to pay road-use tolls without stopping at tollgates, by sending radio signals from equipment on board the car. Today, only 30,000 monitor cars, which were chosen beforehand, may use the ETC system. The advantages of ETC are not yet fully appreciated because many of the tollgates are not yet dedicated to ETC. However, the use of ETC has been rapidly progressing.

ETC gates

(Enokida toll gate on Fukuoka Highway, from <>)

The Japan Highway Government Corporation plans to start ETC services in Tomei, Meishinn, Chuou, Kan-etsu, Sanyou and Tohoku highways in fiscal 2000. The Hanshin Highway Government Corporation plans to assign an ETC lane at every toll gate in fiscal 2001. The Metropolitan Highway Government Corporation also plans to assign an ETC lane at every toll gate. In terms of toll gate numbers, 600 of them will have an ETC lane by the end of fiscal year 2000 and 900 by the end of fiscal 2002.

Advantages of ETC

It has been expected that, if all toll gates and all lanes become ETC-compatible, traffic jams at the toll gates, which account for 30% of the traffic jams on the inter-city highways, will disappear. Also, it will be more convenient for the users because they won't have to pay cash or use credit cards. The highway operating companies will benefit by reducing the number of employees at tollgates and reducing operating costs. Furthermore, the lane width may be narrower because the tollbooth will be eliminated. The number of lanes will be reduced because the cars won't have to stop. This leads to an overall reduction in the toll gate area. At conventional tollgates, vehicles must use their brakes, thereby creating heat by friction. When the vehicles accelerate from idle to highway speed, they create environmental problems by emitting plenty of exhaust gas and noise. Another advantage of ETC is that it reduces such environmental problems by minimizing braking and acceleration.

All these advantages can be appreciated even when ETC-compatible and conventional cars co-exist. But the biggest advantage of ETC will be visible only when all vehicles become ETC-compatible.

Road-use pricing is a system in which cars are charged depending on the distance, status, time and road conditions. Higher prices are charged during the rush hours and peak hours during the Japanese holiday period known as "Golden Week," in late April and early May. The price is lowered when traffic is light. This way, highway use will be averaged. This is called "peak pricing", to set a high price when traffic is at its peak. An environmentally favorable policy can also be practiced by having diesel trucks, which emit greater amounts of exhaust gas, detour to the Bay Highway to avoid the central city area; this can be accomplished by charging a lower price to these trucks on the Bay Highway. This is called "environmental road-use pricing."

On Metropolitan Highway and Hanshin Highway, only vehicles equipped for ETC may use the highways as of fiscal year 2005, because the road-use pricing starts then. In fiscal 2001, the environmental road-use pricing takes place for large trucks prior to ordinary-sized cars. An advantage of ETC in addition to its road-pricing possibilities is that it removes the sense of impartiality about distances. Currently, the toll is the same regardless of the distance, with some exceptions. Those who drive short intervals feel that this impartiality is unfair. In the ETC system, toll collection based upon distance driven and route driven is possible, and just like the prepaid card system for trains, because gates are placed at each entrance and exit as well as at intermediate junctions. For environmental pricing, the Tokyo Government Road Corporation is planning to offer discounts to those users who drive low-pollution cars on the Inagi-Ohashi Highway.

There is an advantage other than environmental road-use pricing. Even on inter-city highways, ETC allows connections to other roads without the need to install new toll booths. Service areas, parking areas and bus stops can be used as the connection points.

How ETC works

There are two systems in ETC, a system on board the automobile and a fixed system on the road, such as gates. The on-board system consists of an IC card and a transmitter. The IC card is a kind of credit card issued by road operators and credit card companies. The IC card carries such information as the user's name and credit card account number. When the card is inserted into the transmitter in the car, ETC is activated. The transmitter already has the information that is specific to the car, such as Vehicle Identification Number and vehicle registration number, make and model of the car, degree of environmental consideration (how much exhaust gas the car emits, how much noise it creates, and so on). The transmitter cannot be used in a different car because the car's own information is transmitted with the information the card carries. The transmitter communicates with the system's roadside receivers using 5.8 GHz radio signals. The communication speed is 1 Mbps.

The roadside system consists of a wireless communication system and a processing system for the information received from the cars. In this information processing system, the price is calculated from entrance/exit data, path and time. The price is transmitted to the car and payment is made from the credit card. In the current trials, the payment is made afterward, but a prepaid card system is also possible. When the transaction is completed, the bar in front of the car is lifted and the car is allowed to go ahead. Because of this bar, cars may not pass through the gate at high speed.

Regional road-use pricing

Road-use pricing will begin on toll roads first, but there are plans to extend the ETC to all the regional roads. In Singapore, a system that charges all the influx cars to the central area has been used since 1975. In the beginning the toll was collected manually, but now an ETC is used. The Tokyo city government is planning a system that charges all the cars that enter inside of the Kan-7 Highway or Yamanote-line. This plan has some variations such as discouraging travel at peak hours and offering discounts to low-pollution cars, but the details have not been decided. Local governments that, like Kamakura city, suffer from tourists' "car pollution," national park regions and scenery preservation regions are likely to adopt such a system.

The future of ETC

The ETC is an interactive communications/transaction system between an automobile and the outside world. Using this system, many other applications will be available. The Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications is planning to use this system to collect tolls in parking lots. It can also be used in drive-through shopping at convenience stores and fast-food shops. For such services, the current bandwidth 1 Mbps may not be enough, but it is said that it may be increased to 4 Mbps by changing the modulation method.

Challenges in ETC

At the current ETC gate, a bar prevents each car from passing until an ETC payment is confirmed. ETC-equipped cars can then pass the gate at high speed. The bar is there to prevent non-ETC-equipped cars from driving through without paying. If all cars were to become ETC-compatible, the bar could be removed and fine-tuned road-use pricing could take effect. It is, however, difficult to get all cars equipped with the ETC system, because a mandatory policy induces a sense of resistance.

How ETC is received by users is a big issue. In case of a car navigation system, for example, a user has a free choice to use it or not. Using the ETC, on the other hand, would be virtually mandatory if the number of roads and regions that require use of this system were to increase. Spending 30,000 yen to 40,000 yen for the equipment may stir up resentment and resistance in the users. That feeling would be especially strong for those who are not heavy users of highways.

In the case of a brand new car, ETC can be integrated with the car navigation system and may become a standard specification. In that case, the cost would be included in the car price. In Japan, there are as many as 75 million vehicles today. If these vehicles are each to be equipped with the ETC system, the total cost would be 2 to 3 trillion yen. For the ETC manufacturers and automobile makers, this is a big business opportunity and it could energize the economy. For the users, however, the expense is not trivial.

Although the tolls for highway use are not an issue of ETC itself, they are expected to increase if the road-use pricing plans are carried out. On the one hand, the current distance-impartiality problems will be solved. On the other hand, for those who have taken advantage of the current system, it will be a price hike. In the case of regional road-use pricing, users can be expected to feel a strong sense of resistance because ordinary roads that used to be free will have become toll roads.

Another important issue is security. Credit cards are the basis of the ETC system. Therefore, the credit card information is sent and received in the air, and that lures fraudulent use of the information. It is said that encryption may prevent such fraud, but this would be of no use if the card is stolen or copied. In Japan, where the N system is already being used to identify a car's license plates automatically, arguing about violations of privacy might be a moot point.

If the use of ETC initiates road-use pricing and the road-use pricing reduces traffic congestion and environmental pollution, it may well be called a success. However, if the worst-case scenario takes place, ETC will have become meaningless: Less-crowded roads attract more drivers, resulting in traffic congestion plus higher tolls. To make an effective use of the ETC, the toll must be different between peak hours and non-peak hours, and between low-pollution vehicles and other vehicles. This will create discontentment in the users. Therefore, a national consensus would be necessary on how the roads should be used as public assets and how the tolls should be collected. Otherwise, the ETC would be a sort of Heisei-era (present-day) version of sekisho, a checkpoint at the domestic borders in the Edo era some 300 or 400 years ago. That is, users would have to purchase an IC card and the on-board equipment to serve as a passport to travel within their own country.

Fig. Caption


Tateyama Expressway

Higashi-kanto Expressway

Joban Expressway

Tohoku Expressway

Kan-etsu Expressway

Chuo Expressway

Tomei Expressway

Tokyo Gaikan Expressway

Tokyo Bay Aqualine Expressway







ITS-related Web sites

Japan Highway Public Corporation (JH)

Hanshin Expressway Public Corporation

Organization for Road System Enhancement (ORSE)

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