Moving in the fast lane

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By Sanjiv Nadkarni

State governments have started unlocking and with that interstate boundaries have been opened. People can travel freely as before without requiring a negative COVID certificate. Nor are they required to do test on arrival. This has started traffic on highways and expected to pick up.

  It is pertinent to note that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has made payment of toll on highways virtually compulsory through electronic mode called Fastag. Only one lane at toll plazas is open for manual payment while all others are fast lanes. If a vehicle that does not have Fastag fitted on it enters a fast lane, double toll is charged.

Fastag is a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) sticker that is fitted to a vehicle. There is an electronic chip inside the sticker like one on ATM card. The chip stores vehicle registration number, type (car, bus etc), vehicle owner’s payment information and some other data. For a new vehicle, Fastag is fitted by dealer at the time of vehicle purchase. For already registered vehicles, you can buy Fastag from banks and other sources. The card is registered on bank (issuer’s) portal with minimum Rs 100. You can then top it up through the portal or link the tag to your bank account.

Toll fee is different for different types of vehicles based on number of axles. There are seven types of vehicles for the purpose of toll and each has Fastag of different colours. For example, cars are fitted with Violet band tags while 3-axle bus with yellow and 4- axle truck with pink band tags.

This electronic system has two basic visible components: Fastag that is fitted to vehicle windscreen that emits vehicle data and an RFID Reader fitted at toll plaza that reads this data. When a vehicle passes through toll plaza, the reader captures the info, knows type of vehicle and corresponding toll amount is deducted from pre paid account associated with the vehicle. This account has a mobile number linked to it and an SMS with toll plaza ID, lane number, date and amount deducted is sent to this number. The boom barrier opens and vehicle is cleared. The system is intended to offer faster clearance to vehicles as there is no manual interface.

It is very interesting to see background processes that come into play.  Two banks are involved in the payment process. Let us say vehicle owner has purchased the tag from bank A and operator of the toll plaza has account with bank B. A is called issuer bank while B is the acquiring bank.  When vehicle approaches the toll plaza, RFID reader reads Fastag and sends data to its computer and is received by Bank B. It is the responsibility of Bank B to verify validity of the tag. There is an intermediary called National Electronic Toll Collection agency (NETC) that has the database of all Fastags issued in the country. 

Bank B sends the data to NETC and if the tag is fake one, NETC informs computer at toll plaza about this. If tag is genuine, NETC passes data to Bank A which verifies balance available in the pre paid account of this vehicle. Bank A communicates this to NETC who then passes this on to Bank B and message is flashed on computer at toll plaza if transaction is successful or failed. Owner gets SMS accordingly and the process is completed. If the transaction fails, driver can make manual payment but will have to pay double the fee as penalty. The process is technology driven and to work seamlessly, all servers and Internet connections need to work efficiently.

Some initial problems have already been reported in implementation of the system. At times, RFID readers are not able to read a tag. Toll attendant has to read the tag with a hand held terminal which slows down the process. Attendant may claim tag is faulty and charge double to the driver leading to unpleasant exchange of words between the two. At some places, highway expansion work is going on and heavy dust settles on vehicle windscreen covering the tag. In such a situation tag cannot be read. Driver has to get down and clean the windscreen. If there is air bubble between tag and windscreen while fixing the tag,  it posses difficulty in reading the data.

Many computers are involved in verifying tags and balance in the pre paid account. It is observed that SMS may take 10 minutes to 30 minutes to be delivered. Toll attendant may claim that transaction has failed and charge double penalty to the driver. If two RFID readers are put at such an angle that incoming vehicle tag can be read by both of them, it is not clear if there can be double deduction of toll fee. 

Once tag is fixed to windscreen, it continuously emits vehicle data as driver has no means of putting off the tag. This means a car in a parking lot will continue to emit data. Fraudster can carry a reader with him, read the data, make a clone of the tag, fix it to his vehicle  and move on highway for free as toll will be charged to someone else’s account. Even more dangerous is, a cloned tag can be put on a car that is used in a crime. This is akin to fitting a duplicate number plate to a car. Implementation agency needs to address these issues. Hopefully they will.

Any technology has good and bad sides. Fastag was thought off because it can effectively solve issues faced by drivers while paying toll on highways. Further it also decreases handling of cash by the toll operator.  Most importantly, automated system can give much accurate data of movement of vehicles. Movement of a stolen car is updated on server on real time basis and can help police in effective tracking.

Just as ATM cards have expiry date, Fastag do too. They are valid for five years. After that you need to buy a new one. This is because globally RFID chips have five years warranty. It is better that you buy the new tag from same bank that issued the original one. It then becomes easy to transfer balance amount from expired tag to the new one. Currently a tag can be topped up with up to Rs one lakh.

If you sell your vehicle, you need to update your bank about this so that the tag is delinked from your account. Otherwise the new owner will be using the car and you will be paying the toll. Also, the bank needs to transfer the tag to new owner after doing due KYC process. 

As issues are handled and the system matures, benefits will outweigh residual problems. Every new system will have teething problems. We should look at them as opportunities to set things right. Excitement of setting up new systems drive innovative minds.

The writer works in areas of IT and renewable energy. He can be reached at sanjivnadkarni@hotmail.com