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Charging into the future. 20/08/2004
In the clearest indication yet of the determination of the European Commission to press ahead with road user charging as a tool of traffic management, the EC has issued an invitation to tender for an 18 month study designed to examine the practicalities of a fully interoperable, pan-European telematics platform. The Mobile Location Unit - Telematics On-board Terminal for Road Vehicles project(1) is expected to provide an assessment of the feasibility of such a platform being used for a range of services, including electronic tolling, traffic management, improved response times for the emergency services and increased road safety.

The new study is the latest in a long line of initiatives aimed at dealing with the seemingly intractable problem of system interoperability and will, it is hoped, give a glimpse of what is possible, together with the route by which it might be achieved. In the short time allowed to it (500 man days over 18 months), it can hardly be expected to produce more. Other attempts have included INITIATIVE (Industry Initiative to produce Automatic Tolling In Vehicles in Europe), MISTER (Minimum Interoperability Specification for Tolling on European Roads), VERT (Vehicle Remote Tolling), CARDME (Concerted Action for Research on Demand Management in Europe, addressing the procedural solutions) and - from September this year - RCI-PP (Road Charging Interoperability Pilot Project).

But what separates these initiatives from the Mobile Location Unit project is the idea that a single on-board unit (OBU) should be required to address a far wider range of issues than electronic tolling. As the tender document makes clear, consortia wishing to take part would do well to examine previous work in this field including EVI (Electronic Vehicle Identification)(2) as well as the Sixth Framework Programme research on e-safety and programmes such as GST (Global System for Telematics) being co-ordinated by ERTICO ITS Europe. The aim of the project is to "investigate and define the functionality, constraints and system architecture and assess the benefits of a telematics platform, integrated within the vehicle or as a single core vehicle unit."

Perhaps learning from its earlier mistakes, the Commission has been at pains not to insist on the deployment of any one communications protocol for use with the proposed telematic platform. GSM/GPRS(3), DSRC at 5.8 GHz and GNSS (Galileo) are all acceptable mediums for the competing consortia to consider even if the document does drop some heavy hints about the Commission's own preference for Galileo. To be fair, this interpretation is not one shared by officers within the Commission who prefer a more diplomatic approach.

"It would be quite wrong for the Commission to seek to influence the choice of technology," said a senior official within DG (Tren). "We want those tendering for the contract to be given a free hand to suggest a workable scheme using the technology they consider most appropriate. At the same time, it is true that we have invested in (Galileo) and would wish to see a return on this."

Whatever the reality of the situation, it is clear that the Commission is anxious not to be left behind in the pursuit of a solution that will, even on conservative estimates, be worth billions of Euro a year in revenue. Nor will it wish to ignore the other, no less tangible, benefits that a fully interoperable telematics platform will bring, including improved driver behaviour and an reduction in the KSI (killed/seriously injured) rate through less congestion and improved traffic management. To what extent they will succeed in their aim is far from clear.

The problems standing in the way of a multi-functional and fully interoperable telematics device are a combination of political inertia and commercial unease rather than any doubts about industry's ability to device a physical infrastructure that works.

"The building blocks of a multifunctional OBU already exist," said Ghassan Freij, Director of Operations at ERTICO ITS Europe. "Our work with GST shows that it is possible to develop an open architecture, end-to-end telematics platform allowing any driver anywhere, access to any service from any provider. There are some complex issues to overcome but it can be done."

Then why hasn't it happened? The driving force behind the development of telematics in road transport has always been the ability of service providers to generate revenue from the use of tolled roads and as a result the enabling technologies have grown piecemeal. In consequence the number of interoperable schemes are few (4) and subsequent attempts to create a European Road Charging Interoperability standard have only now reached the stage of a 'common position' with a Directive (2004/52/EC) that was adopted in April this year. In essence the Directive lays down the permitted protocols to be employed from 1st January 2007 (Satellite, GSM/GPRS or DSRC) and describes the principles of interoperability that must be complied with. The search for the technical standards for DSRC, the most widely used form of electronic tolling, took well over a decade and the patched-up affair recently agreed to is far from satisfactory with the Italian Telepass system remaining non-compliant. Despite this it has been allowed to continue in use during a transitional but unspecified period.

Yet cracking the political nut is only one aspect of the problem. "Commercially, there is very little interest," said Jesper Engdahl, a consultant in the Traffic Telematics Department at Rapp Trans AG in Basel, speaking at a recent IEE conference in London. "Interoperation does not pay and unlike mobile phone roaming, users are not prepared to pay a substantial amount for the extra service."

But Engdahl was referring only to EFC and not to the myriad of value-added services that the Mobile Location Unit project is intended to address. The difference is crucial, particularly if legislation requires the presence of an interoperable OBU and that OBU provides a range of services of direct interest and benefit to the driver, in addition to the EFC function. In the early stages, the value-added element may be no more than an ability to interface with the new digital tachograph that is currently being developed for use in heavy goods vehicles and passenger carrying coaches. Later will come the integration with the CAN-bus on all new vehicles - as well as the retro-fit market.

"The functionality (of the telematic platform)," says the DG (Tren) document, "would also be required to be capable of interfacing with any other relevant management systems operating in the vehicle ... in which it is located."

Included in this would be the interface with vehicle's electronic identification (EVI) the main benefit of which is that it provides an electronically readable vehicle identification that can make many other applications that rely on identifying the vehicle more effective. EVI is being considered as an integral core device within a new vehicle's electronic control and information network as well as a device suitable for retrofit.

"This raises issues of privacy as well as those relating to the physical and electronic security of the OBU," said Ghassan Freig of ERTICO. "The tender document recognises this in the requirement that the data be encrypted and the OBU made tamper-proof.

No one expects that this project will supply all the answers to the complex technological and political questions raised by the notion of a pan-European, interoperable telematics platform. What is does do is place on notice the determination of the European Commission to force the pace for the adoption of advanced telematics as a cost-effective means of controlling access to the scarce resource that is the Union's road network. If it can do that and at the same time provide a pointer to the way forward, it will have succeeded in its task.

1. Mobile Location Unit - Telematics On-board Terminal for Road Vehicles project No. TREN/E4/18/2004)
2. EVI consortium, project ID: SUB-B27020B-E3-EVI-2002-S07.18393
3. GMS reference: GSM TS 03.60/23.060
4. Interoperable systems exist between Switzerland/Austria, France/Spain (where they are at the commercial pilot stage), and Austria/Italy. Norway/Sweden/Denmark strive to achieve interoperability through their NORITS (NORdic Interoperability for Tolling Systems) initiative and one or two other projects. The intention is also to update the Norwegian AutoPass system so that it supports Danish and Swedish users.

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