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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Spy in the sky replaces toll booths
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Satellite technology has helped motorists navigate and avoid traffic jams. Now it is helping to ensure they pay road tolls. But it is not all bad news. In Switzerland, it means no queues at toll booths and no dodging charges.

A truck driver at a road toll
Truck drivers can make payments via the internet rather than at tolls
For all the romantic talk of the open road, these days roads are rarely open and freeways seldom free.

They have become so snarled with traffic and so expensive to keep up that authorities are turning to elaborate new systems to pay for them.

This technology means it is not just a particular bridge or tunnel getting tolled, but entire city centres or national road networks.

Conventional toll galleries, such as the ones in France, cost a fortune to both build and run.

Roads need widening, toll booths need manning around the clock, and so a large chunk of the cash they generate is spent on running costs.

Over the border in Switzerland, the customs department, which handles tolls, has bundled together everything from short range microwave communication to global positioning technology into a system with running costs that look like small change.

On-board customs

Competing for dashboard space with bullhorns and the confederate flag is the OBU or On-Board-Unit.

This in-cab customs officer lights-up on entering the country after receiving a microwave signal from the overhead gantry.

It records the distance travelled and the driver pays accordingly.

Gérard Vauthey, from Swiss Customs, says it is simple.

"All the personnel we need are already here. We don't need to hire any more staff. We can perform all the formalities to charge the tolls. And also, for the drivers, it is an easy option."

Smart payments

To ensure that there are no arguments over where and how far the driver has travelled, every now and then the OBU checks in with a Global Positioning Satellite
Fewer drivers are using the old method of parking and paying for their journey according to the counter on their dashboard.

In this case the main weapon against fraud is a hand-held camera that checks the lorry's clock.

With the new system all the data from the On-Board Unit is saved on a smart card.

Truckers can send the card to Bern for processing, or they can send the data and payment over the internet.

To ensure that there are no arguments over where and how far the driver has travelled, the OBU checks in every now and then with a global positioning satellite.

As for those who take side-roads to sneak over the border, well you might expect there to be several hundred customs officers chasing toll dodgers.

However, the enforcement team is a single officer who scans road-side cameras for free-loaders.

With this and GPS, most drivers obey the rules. For them the new system is a breath of fresh air.

One lorry driver says: "For me there are no worries with this system. If you think I used to have to go to the customs officer and have all my papers stamped, now I take about a minute to register the distance I've travelled."

A second lorry driver says: "I've had no problems with the on-board-unit. There's nothing to do. It is all automatic."

While Germany has just introduced a similar system to this one, theirs has suffered one or two teething problems, which just goes to show that you can have the technology, but out of Swiss hands it is not guaranteed to run like clock-work.


Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.



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