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Snapshot of the action

Behind-the-scenes story of the PlatePass scheme.
Exploring how the system operates and its place within the interoperable tolling debate. By Louise Smyth

Since its inception in 2005, PlatePass has evolved to become one of tolling’s modern day success stories. Parent company American Traffic Solutions (ATS) is well known across the traffic industry for its achievements in the speed and red-light safety arena, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that PlatePass is cutting a successful path as well. What’s noteworthy is how quietly this division of ATS has gone about its meteoric rise. The trade press – always quick to cover news of the latest products – has somewhat neglected the fact that PlatePass, while not a product per se in the physical sense, is stealthily becoming a very convincing argument in favor of an interoperable toll network across the United States. To remedy this situation, Traffic Technology International decided to interview the man who has dedicated his career over the past few years entirely to PlatePass.

Philip Underhill, vice-president of PlatePass operations is a man who is well versed in answering the typical dinner-party question, “So, what do you do?” As such, when asked to provide a layman’s terms explanation of what exactly PlatePass is, he has a comprehensive answer ready.

“Essentially, PlatePass is an intermediary between toll authorities and fleets. Those fleets can be rental car customers or commercial fleet management companies. We establish accounts with major toll authorities in North America. We pre-fund those accounts and we either register license plates or we purchase transponders that we then provide to our rental and fleet management customers,” he says.

“Once we download from the authorities the tolls that occur against either the vehicles or the transponders that are registered to our accounts, we aggregate those transactions, match them up with individuals and then through a number of different mechanisms we will charge credit cards, fleet accounts or pay-per-invoice customers for the tolls that they incurred during their time of possession of a specific vehicle,” he continues.

There are currently around 500,000 vehicles under contract with the PlatePass system, which offers an insight into how popular it is proving. And it’s not only a toll-paying service that is offered. For the fleet management customers, ATS also offers an array of options, including violations processing, parking payments and more.

The particularly smart thing about PlatePass is that it is making use of technology already out in the field. There is no costly infrastructure to be deployed and no complex components for authorities to get to grips with. “We leverage the technology that toll authorities have already put in place. So they’ve put in cameras and OCR to improve their own operational efficiency or to implement video tolling and we’re piggybacking off that for our own processes. We’re the biggest customer for some of these toll roads, we pay more tolls than anybody else, and we work collaboratively to help them identify which vehicles we own so they can charge us electronically,” Underhill explains.

Attractive proposition
It’s easy to see why toll authorities are keen to work with PlatePass. If you consider that just one PlatePass ‘fleet’ – the likes of a rental car company, for instance, could consist of 100,000 vehicles, that’s 100,000 vehicles the toll authority knows it will receive revenue from as long as it reads their plates. There are no issues with unregistered or out-of-state drivers, no time-consuming enforcement or issuing of violations: just 100,000 little guarantees of revenue.

But is the use of existing infrastructure as attractive from the PlatePass perspective? There is seemingly a big challenge involved in selling a system where you have no say in many of its specifications. Underhill and his team can no more decide which cameras or LPR software products are used than they can decide how a license plate is formatted. It’s therefore impossible for them to make any statistical claims as to the accuracy of their own services. Underhill doesn’t necessarily regard this issue as a negative: “From a renter’s perspective, if a toll road’s system doesn’t work very well, there’s only ever going to be a net benefit to them in that if they’re not identified, they don’t pay the toll. So it’s really incumbent on the toll authorities to protect their own revenues. And they’re getting much better at it; today’s technology is robust and reliable and there are all sorts of safeguards in place.”

He does, however, acknowledge the challenge in assessing efficacy, by saying: “It’s difficult for me to measure the performance, as somebody would certainly tell me if they had been billed twice for the same toll, but nobody would tell me if they had not been billed at all!”

The social network
Of course the underlying point about PlatePass in the wider scheme of things is that it represents a proven example of interoperable tolling. Underhill states: “You can pick up a Hertz car in California, drive it through Texas, into Florida and potentially up to the Northeast, and get an itemized single bill for all of the tolls you have incurred in those states just using the license plate of that vehicle.”

The interoperable issue has not escaped the eagle eyes of Peter Samuel at Tollroadsnews.com and some other industry commentators, but Underhill does express a small amount of surprise at the time it is taking for most people to ‘get’ this point: “Some of the tag lines we’ve been getting in the media refer to PlatePass as ‘the nationwide interoperability toll network.’ Well, we’ve called it that for four years! It was always our idea that at some point, others can opt in too. We want people to enrol in tolling solutions such E-ZPass in the Northeast and in PlatePass as well.

“Consider a toll authority – for the sake of this example, we’ll say Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA). I like using OTA as an example because Oklahoma shares a border with Texas; there’s a lot of traffic that travels between the two states (i.e. many shared customers), yet those two regional systems have no interoperability between them. Let’s say there are around a million vehicles registered with OTA’s PikePass system. I equate those vehicles to a fleet – in just the same way as a Hertz fleet. If OTA were to give me their fleet (all of the license plates that are registered with their account), we could register their fleet with a number of other toll authorities and I could pay the tolls and make sure they got to the appropriate destination. That can be done with very little work. Putting in technology to share license plates between different authorities is not a complicated proposition.”

With the business case both blindingly obvious and field-proven, and the required technology already in existence, the challenge to a wider adoption of this form of interoperability goes back to the ever frustrating issue of ‘political will’. There are two distinct hurdles here, says Underhill: “The first is about encouraging these various governmental agencies to think differently and try something that’s a little different. Going back to the example of Oklahoma, we could very easily bring a fleet of that size into PlatePass. But that brings us onto the next challenge: even if OTA said yes to enrolling their users in PlatePass, what we don’t have is the approval from each of those customers to charge them a user fee – which is how our whole system operates. If somebody wants to drive their car across a couple of states and back, using high-speed, cashless toll roads throughout the journey, there’s a small user fee (around US$2 per day) on top of the toll charges. What this means in this specific example is that when users signed up to the PikePass system, their enrollment agreement would need an addendum that explains what they are signing up to and gives us their credit card details or permission to debit their pre-paid account. This is all completely doable but somebody’s got to make the first move.

“I’m not giving up on this: it’s something we are continuing to pursue because we believe in it so wholeheartedly. We think it will bring a wider benefit to the motoring public. PlatePass should be expanded to become the truly interoperable nationwide network it has the potential to be – and we’d very much like to be the ones who bring the political will to the table to make that happen.”
 

 

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