Taiwan’s eTag ETC System Gains International Fame

Cars pass under one of the gantries holding sensors to measure the distances traveled.

When the distance-based “eTag” electronic toll collection (ETC) system for Taiwan’s freeways was first launched in January 2014, it was the subject of heated criticism for alleged unreliability. Now, more than a year later, it is not only running smoothly but has won international acclaim as a model intelligent transportation system.

The number of cars bearing an eTag, an electronic tape installed on windshields, already exceeds 6 million – equaling 94% of registered automotive vehicles. Motorists whose cars are equipped with an eTag no longer have to slow down to pay tolls at toll stations. Instead, a total of 319 overhead electronic gantries use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to track vehicles’ progression along the freeways, automatically deducting tolls–minus a 10% discount–from the eTag account’s pre-stored value according to the distance traveled. The first 20 kilometers traveled each day are free of charge, and car owners can add money to their e-Tag accounts at 11,000 outlets throughout the island, including major convenience-store chains. Cars lacking an e-Tag can still travel on the freeways, but the owners need to go to the designated outlets to pay the tolls after receiving bills by mail.

The fully automated system has achieved a 99.9998% accuracy rate, despite the heavy freeway traffic averaging 14 million trips each day. The task is also complicated by the different rates charged to passenger cars, buses, and trucks, as well as adjustments made in the rates at certain times and for certain sections for the purpose of reducing traffic at peak times or in congested areas.

The ETC network covers 1,050 kilometers of freeway, making it the world’s largest system of its kind. Since its introduction, the eTag has cut driving time by five to 30 minutes for most motorists, leading to considerable fuel savings. Combined with the elimination of printed toll tickets, the total savings from introduction of the new system is calculated at about NT$2 billion (US$66 million) annually.

The fully automated system has achieved a 99.9998% accuracy rate, despite the heavy freeway traffic averaging 14 million trips each day.

Besides its length, the ETC system is also the world’s first national ETC network featuring toll collection based entirely on travel distance, as well as the first successful conversion from a system based mainly on the number of trips. Following the launch of free eTag installation in 2012, it took only two years for the system to achieve a 94% usage rate, far superior to the 11 years needed in Japan to attain a comparable rate. The system was developed by the operator, the Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co. (FETC), part of the domestic Far Eastern Group.

The achievement has attracted the attention of many countries–including Vietnam, Malaysia, Italy, and Russia – which intend to adopt the system for their freeways. Vietnam, for instance, is currently testing a system built with FETC’s assistance and scheduled to be implemented by 2016.

The widespread acclaim is a far cry from the initial extensive mistrust of the system in early 2014 due to a number of glitches, notably erroneous or repeated collection of tolls. On a single day, January 3, 121 wrong tolls were charged, spurring a media and public outcry.

To regain public confidence trust in the system, Taiwan Area National Freeway Bureau late that month announced an intensified program to monitor the performance of the system. An auditing committee consisting of seven scholars and experts was tasked with checking the system’s key performance index (KPI) for a 90-day period starting February 1. During that period, the auditors spot-checked seven toll gantries daily, and the Freeway Bureau announced that it would fine FETC NT$500,000 and possibly revoke the contract if there were four wrong toll collections at the seven gantries or three wrong toll collections at any one of them.

The requirement meant an accuracy rate of 99.999%, even higher than 99.8% required by the contract. But FETC passed the test thanks to the strenuous effort of the company’s technical team in debugging the system.

Until conversion to the e-Tag system, FETC had been unable to meet the requirement that at least 60% of the freeway traffic use the ETC system, as stipulated under the 20-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract. Many motorists had balked at paying the NT$680 needed to install the transponder or OBU (on-board unit) needed for cars to pass directly through the ETC lanes rather than slowing down to pay ticket collectors at the now dismantled toll stations. By mid-2011, five years after the inauguration of the original infrared technology-based ETC system, the usage rate had reached only 35% and FETC was facing potential bankruptcy due to fines of NT$500,000 a day.

Chang Yung-chang, president of FETC, hit upon the solution during an ITS (Intelligent Transport Systems) World Congress in Busan, Korea, where he spotted an eTag on display. It occurred to him that the adhesive electronic tape could be used as the backbone of the ETC system, and the FETC R&D team then took up the idea and perfected the technology. The Freeway Bureau accepted the proposal on condition that ETC service not be disrupted during the process of system conversion, that the system’s accuracy be verified, and that consumer interest not be compromised. After repeated testing, the feasibility and reliability of the program was confirmed.

In order to assure success of the new system, FETC–despite its accumulated loss of NT$3.8 billion–agreed to provide customers with free eTag installation and to buy back the 1.2 million-plus OBUs in use.

In addition, in compliance with Freeway Bureau requirements, FETC agreed to help find employment for the 942 toll collectors, mainly in Far Eastern Group companies or state enterprises under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, such as Taiwan Railway. In addition, the collectors were assured of receiving their original pay levels at the new positions for five years, on top of severance compensation equivalent to 12 months’ pay.

Complaining that hundreds of them were still without adequate new jobs, dissatisfied ex-collectors have repeatedly staged protest demonstration, at times blocking freeway traffic. In mid-March, a group protested outside the residence of Premier Mao Chi-kuo and threw shoes and water bottles at him when he emerged on his way to work.