'Smart Highway' System Should Oust Toll Booths

High-tch companies battle for new markets in the US, Europe, and Chile

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF several high-tech companies have their way, traditional tollbooths - where cars stop, pay cash, and often wait in long lines - could soon be a thing of the past.

An electronic toll collection system - where motorists pay tolls in advance and pass through electronically monitored lanes without ever stopping - is one component of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) or "smart highways" as they are commonly called.

IVHS likely will change the way drivers in Massachusetts, and in other states around the country, think about getting from here to there. Two very different companies hope to lead the way.

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AT/Comm, a 44-employee engineering and design company in Marblehead, Mass., hopes to do for this state what it is doing for Illinois. Last September AT/Comm won a bid from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to implement its Electronic Toll and Traffic Management System on the congested Illinois Tollroad.

By October, when the system is expected to be operational, selected drivers will attach a $35 transponder, manufactured by Dover Electronics Company, to the dashboard of their cars. They will prepay their toll money (typically $50) to a toll authority in the lane and the amount will be entered into the transponder via radio. The transponder internally maintains the account. When the motorists pass through the designated toll lanes, the money is debited from the account and the transaction information tra nsmitted back to the driver.

The transponder can maintain 24 different accounts and works even if a motorist crosses into a different state that uses the same system, says John Rourke, vice president of sales and marketing.

This week AT/Comm announced it would meet in September in Chile with Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and Chile's minister of public works to finalize a proposal to test the AT/Comm electronic toll system there. And by the end of the year, the company expects to bid for contracts awarded by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, as well as for similar contracts in the next two to four years in such states as New Hampshire, New York, Florida, and Indiana, and countries like Japan, Singapore, France, and Swe den.

HE Massachusetts Turnpike Authority has spent the past year trying to sort out various options for an electronic toll collection system and has been debating what is best for the turnpike, says spokeswoman Linda Dailey. "We decided to look into electronic toll collection because we need to protect the environment and limit highway expansion," she says, referring to the effects of traffic congestion at traditional tollways. "We're still studying the feasibility of such a system."

AT/Comm has no illusions about the bidding. The competition - including AT&T, Hughes, Texas Instruments, Mark IV, and Saab - is fierce.

AT&T's electronic toll collection system, for example, is based on "smart card" technology, whereby a computer chip is embedded inside a plastic card that fits inside a transponder. The card stores a variety of transportation and non-transportation information - including the dollar amount to be debited when a vehicle passes through a toll lane.

The device is in use in Italy and will soon be in operation in Orange County, Calif., says Carol Zimmerman, IVHS marketing manager for AT&T. "Much of our technology is state of the art," Ms. Zimmerman says. "A lot of this kind of equipment hasn't been deployed in the transportation industry to a large extent. The first step is to deploy the ... equipment that exists today."

The company's plan to acquire McCaw Cellular Communications, announced last week, will provide a valuable link for connecting people with IVHS types of applications, Zimmerman says.

Many smaller companies have been innovative and have developed specific IVHS-related products, Zimmerman says. "But the transportation industry wants to be sure that providers will be in business a long time and they want to know that their products are backed up by whoever is producing them," she adds. "This provides opportunities for the larger companies to play in the IVHS arena as well."

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