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Big Brother on the Highway

July 29, 2003

A new toll system goes in effect on German highways for heavy commercial vehicles next month. The system is the world's first to use satellite technology to record trucks' highway mileage and automatically charge tolls.

No more free ride for trucks on German autobahns.Image: AP

The control bridges are already in place and on-board computers are being frantically installed in trucks throughout Germany and beyond. Trucking companies and traffic experts are carefully counting down the days until August 31, when trucks weighing over 12 tons will be required to pay a per-kilometer charge when they drive on Germany's autobahns.

Tolls based on distance traveled have long been considered for heavy trucks, since the income could be used to fund rising highway maintenance costs. The sticking point has been how to institute a workable system without having to construct legions of toll booths along Germany's highways.

Riding to the rescue is satellite technology, which will work in tandem with small on-board computers installed in heavy trucks that function as drive-along toll station attendants, registering how far the truck has driven along a toll road, calculating the cost and sending it back to a central computer for later billing.

Satellite Positioning

Under the new system, before starting off, drivers will turn on computers called on-board units (OBU) which have been provided to them by the toll company. The activation establishes a linkup with a global positioning satellite in Earth's orbit. The continuous satellite connection enables the OBU to know at all times where the truck is.

With the help of street atlas programmed into its memory, the OBU begins charging between nine and fourteen cents for every kilometer the truck drives on the highway, depending on the vehicle's number of axles and emission class. As soon as the vehicle leaves the highway, the on-board computer automatically stops calculating toll charges.

Every 100 kilometers, the computer sends an electronic message to a calculation center and vehicle owners are invoiced every month based on the data received.

Catching the cheaters

LKW-Mautsystem in Deutschland Maut LKW Autobahn
Image: AP

The 300 "control bridges" (photo) now in place along German highways have been equipped with lasers which scan heavy vehicles that pass under them. The lasers recognize vehicles that are obligated to pay tolls by scanning their outlines. If the bridge sensors don't receive a signal from the on-board computer, either because it is not turned on or the driver hasn't installed one, a camera takes a picture of the vehicle's license plate.

In addition to the bridges, some 300 cars equipped with the same sensor technology will prowl the highways looking for trucks not following the rules. Toll violators can be charged up to €20,000 ($23,000).

The new German toll system is the first in the world to use satellite technology to monitor traffic. Unlike other systems in place, for example those which use electronic tags to register tolls, the German version doesn't require radio beacons along the side of the road to collect information. Traffic planners also avoided the construction of toll stations, which they feared would further tie up Germany's already overburdened autobahn network.

Mautstellen Terminal
Image: AP/Toll Collect

The €500 OBU is being provided free of charge by the Toll Collect, the consortium behind the new system. However, the installation costs have to be covered by the truck drivers themselves. Installation is not mandatory, but those driving OBU-less will be required to stipulate their routes in advance and "buy" them at special terminals being set up at gas stations and truck stops.

It's estimated that there will be some 200,000 toll transactions daily on Germany's 12,000 kilometers of highway, all of which could bring in some €2.8 billion ($3.2 billion) a year.

Foreseeing the glitches

As with all new technology, there are concerns that bugs in the system could result in trucking disruptions at the beginning. The satellite tracking systems and control bridges have passed repeated checks. The primary concern now is that there will not be enough time to install on-board computers in every truck that wants one. In order to meet the August 31 start date, some 5,000 OBUs need to be installed every day. But according to Germany's freight traffic association, only one percent of heavy trucks actually have appointments to have the units installed.

On August 15, an independent commission investigating the toll system's introduction will report to Germany's Department of Transportation whether or not the program can begin as scheduled.

"I want to see the program succeed from the beginning, and not start in chaos," said Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe.