Author: Roger Homrich Photos: Johannes Heuckeroth/Gallery Stock, ASFINAG (3)
On January 1, 2004, Austria began to charge tolls for vehicles whose total weight exceeded 3.5 metric tons. Since then, onboard units (OBUs) and toll portals along the highways have tracked the distances that trucks travel on all highways and expressways that are subject to tolls.
One such on-board unit, the GO Box, communicates with toll portals over microwave frequencies without requiring the truck to stop. For truck drivers, the box is painless to install and simple to operate. Before rolling out, they merely have to enter the number of axles on their vehicle. And that’s it! The GO Box handles almost everything else. It calculates the toll charges en route so they can be billed or directly debited from a bank account, depending on the truck owner’s preferences. A short beep indicates when a toll transaction is finished. A GO Box can be loaded with funds like a prepaid cellphone, or route data can be automatically sent to a data center for processing and post-pay billing through services such as GO Direkt. The system is due for a modernization. Any modification that extensive will have to respect one key requirement, though: all toll systems have to be interoperable across Europe. And this is where ASFINAG, along with other European toll operators, has done trailblazing work. GO Maut 2.0, the next generation of its successful system, meets the European Commission’s interoperability standard for a European electronic toll service (EETS). The standard states that countries in Europe are free to pick their toll system technology as long as it is compatible with EETS. Approved OBUs are then installed in cars or trucks to collect tolls in all associated European toll systems.
Next toll system generation to launch in 2018
In Austria, every heavy vehicle needs a GO Box to pay tolls – from big RVs to semi-trailers. There were 650 million transactions in 2016.
In 2016, ASFINAG requested new bids to build and operate its central system. The winning bid was submitted by Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Systems. Starting in 2018, the partners will lay the foundation for the new GO Maut toll system. It will mark the first upgrade of a large, nationwide toll system during live operations. Once again, ASFINAG is breaking new ground, just like in 2004. The stakes are high: a system failure, even if only for a day, would incur millions of euros in losses.
T-Systems won the contract to build the central IT system and run the high-availability data center for ten years in a Europe-wide tendering procedure. “We’ve been using a very stable, reliable system since 2004. We awarded the contract to maintain and protect this successful model,” said Bernd Datler, Managing Director of ASFINAG. To prepare for GO Maut 2.0, T-Systems will modernize the technical platform by taking actions such as virtualizing systems. “We expect this will make the system environment much less complex,” Datler explained. The switchover will not change the software, though. “We don’t want our customers to notice the change in any negative way. On the contrary, they will benefit from upgraded services.” To minimize the risks involved in moving such a complex IT system to a new data center, ASFINAG described very clearly what the system had to be able to do, and had the documentation reviewed by an outside expert - before putting it out for tender. The results speak for themselves: in April 2017, only halfway through the transition, all the traffic lights shown on the project dashboard were green.
Sales terminals and inspection vehicles
The contract encompasses other tasks as well. In the future, T-Systems Austria will issue OBUs and run 200 sales offices with payment terminals. That’s quite a challenge. After all, GO Maut toll systems process around 650 million transactions each year.
“The vehicles used by our service and inspection team are getting technology upgrades, too,” said Kögler at T-Systems Austria. Although Austrian drivers have an excellent toll payment history, compliance with their toll obligations still has to be verified in order to be fair. To do this, ASFINAG is not only employing manpower, but is also installing automatic camera systems that can verify whether tolls are paid correctly.
“Our GO Maut 2.0 speaks a European microwave language.”Managing Director, ASFINAG Maut Service GmbH
Users pay for infrastructure investments
ASFINAG depends on road users to pay their tolls. Though state-owned, the company receives no additional funding from the Austrian government, but finances all its operations with truck toll payments and income from issuing toll stickers. “Everyone who uses the roads also pays for them. It’s a fair system that provides a best practice model for the rest of Europe,” Datler confirmed. One important aspect: the system has to be compatible with other toll systems – including Germany’s GPS-based system. “Each satellite unit for Germany also has a microwave interface on board. You could say that it speaks a European microwave language,” Datler said.
ASFINAG was established in 1982 and plans, finances, builds, maintains, operates and collects tolls for roughly 1,400 miles of highways and expressways. In 1997, ASFINAG acquired the “right of usufruct” to the land and facilities of the primary federal network of major roads owned by the Austrian government. The company, in other words, is entitled to collect tolls and usage charges. ASFINAG finances its activities mainly through tolls. It is not subsidized by the federal budget. All toll revenues are ploughed straight back in the operation and construction of the road network and hence into increasing traffic safety.