Tuesday 20 September 2011

History of EZ-Pass

EZ Pass is a DSRC based electronic tolling system used on toll roads in 14 states in the USA.   Toll roads in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia, share use of the system, which enables interoperability between the roads.  It uses what might be considered to be a rather dated, but effective standard of 915MHz sent at 500 kbit/s using the IAG protocol in 256-bit packets.  

Some interesting points include how in 1993 some felt that would be a waste of money, especially with the general sentiment in favor of phasing out tolls. "Visionary skeptics foresaw that an electronic toll collection system would be very expensive to implement, requiring new buildings, computers, extensive wiring at toll booths, a new billing and collection system, technicians to maintain and test the new system and electronic identification sensors to allow toll plazas to differentiate between authorized and unauthorized vehicles."

In November 1996, the state announced plans to award a $488 million contract to MFS Network Technologies, to set up an electronic toll collection system called E-ZPass....it was discovered that MFS could not record toll cheats electronically, toll collectors had to write down the license plate numbers of violators

The introduction of E-ZPass did not go smoothly. Drivers, who erroneously entered the turnpike through an E-ZPass lane and then exited through a non-E-ZPass lane, found that they were charged the maximum toll at that exit. There were also cases where Turnpike “entries” didn’t get recorded but “exits” did.

Problems were even worse when tags malfunctioned. The assumed violation triggered a camera, which took a picture of the passing vehicle’s license plate. That resulted in the owner receiving a $25 fine for an “administrative fee.” If the owner was an E-ZPass customer, they could fill out the back of the violation, thus informing the agency that their pre-paid account had sufficient funds in it.
The agency then usually cancelled the fine and only assessed the toll fee. But this was expensive corrective action, since in addition to the time spent by the E-ZPass employees and the customer; a toll could result in two letters from the agency and one letter from the customer.

A weak link of the E-ZPass system is the transponder tag, which is mounted in each vehicle for detection and toll collection purposes. Each is equipped with a battery, which is supposed to last 10 years. But with many batteries wearing out sooner than had been anticipated, more than a million tags were replaced under a $28 million contract with Mark IV Industries (the company that supplied the transponder), approved by the Turnpike Authority in 2006. 

Lots of expensive lessons, that seem silly now, but how many others make the same mistakes again and again? The toll industry globally is still very fractionated, with many local players in the market. The opportunities are there for lesson learned in different jurisdictions to be applied more readily across the board, but by and large, most practitioners remain US, European or country specific focused. 

What of the future?  Well the article doesn't predict.  I presume there will be more conversions to fully electronic free flow tolls, and the question will be whether the technology ever moves on to the new Federal 5.9GHz standard which is necessary for all sorts of sophisticated ITS applications.  Moreso, how will EZPass evolve to cope with plans to replace fuel tax over the long term?  I expect the future to be bright, but more focused on providing the essential service of handling customers, opening, closing and changing accounts, rather than focusing on the technology used.   For it is in service provision that the biggest risks lie in terms of costs and therefore margins for operators.


  1. We love EZ Pass. My car seats would be hiding lots of coins if we didn't have EZ Pass. Who always have $7.50 handy to cross the Whitestone Bridge. With EZ Pass, driving is much easier.

  2. It's communist.