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Toll Consortium Recalls Onboard Truck Units

Germany’s high-tech toll system for heavy commercial vehicles hit another bump in the road on Wednesday, as around 20,000 of the onboard truck computers were recalled. The problems could endanger the November start date.

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The toll infrastructure has been built, but truckers are having problems with their onboard units.

As one of the last countries in Europe not to charge commercial trucks for using it highways, Germany planned to make up for its tardiness with fancy satellite technology that would track vehicles and charge them per kilometer driven.

For the consortium Toll Collect, backed by German corporate heavyweights Deutsche Telekom and DaimlerChrysler, the system was supposed to showcase cutting-edge "Made in Germany" technology. But unfortunately it doesn’t appear to work.

Toll Collect on Wednesday said around 30 percent of the onboard computers from the firm Grundig don’t work properly. The recall affects 20,000 of some 175,000 already installed units, but the consortium maintains it will not hinder the start of the system’s test phase.

"It’s a lot worse than is widely known in public," Karlheinz Schmidt, head of the BGL logistics and shipping association, told the Associated Press. "Sometimes the units are so sensitive they fail as soon as a truck’s onboard fridge turns on."

German Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe said on Wednesday the decision when to start the testing phase would be made next week. The official begin, originally scheduled for August, has been pushed back to November 2, but some trucking and logistics firms are skeptical the system can start before next year.

Pressure on Stolpe

Already delayed once, the talk of postponing the start again is putting Stolpe under increasing pressure. On Wednesday, the minister had to answer the questions of a parliamentary committee concerned over mounting losses from the delayed start, which costs the government an estimated €156 million each month.

A government spokesman on Wednesday had to deny that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had called Telekom CEO Kai-Uwe Ricke to discuss the problems with the toll system.

Politicians across the spectrum have become increasingly critical of Toll Collect and Stolpe for not supposedly taking the consortium to task for the technical problems. "Stolpe has clearly lost sight of the situation and isn’t capable of setting a start date for the toll system or working out questions of liability and compensation," said Dietrich Austermann of the opposition Christian Democrats.

Manfred Stolpe

Manfred Stolpe

Although Stolpe’s predecessor at the Transport Ministry actually cut the deal with Toll Collect, he is now paying the price for allegedly sloppily negotiated contracts that give the government little leeway in seeking damages from the consortium.

But even after his two-hour grilling by parliamentarians on Wednesday, Stolpe remained optimistic the project wouldn’t turn into a complete financial disaster. "I assume a fair compromise of all interested parties can be reached and tax payers won’t have to pony up for the whole thing," Stolpe said, according to the German press agency DPA.

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