Efforts to Aid Adoption of ISO 18000-6C RFID for Toll Collection Move Forward

By Claire Swedberg

OmniAir Certification Services, on behalf of the 6C Toll Operators Committee, has already certified several models of tags and readers.

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A coalition known as the 6C Toll Operators Committee (6CTOC) is pushing ahead in its efforts to promote a nationwide standard for the use of passive ISO 18000-6C ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID tags for the purpose of toll collection. Four U.S. tolling agencies that have already adopted the technology formed the 6CTOC in 2011: Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), the Denver area’s E-470 Public Highway Authority, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

In 2010, UDOT may have become the first U.S. toll agency to adopt the use of ISO 18000-6C readers and tags, which are attached to vehicles (see RFID Puts Salt Lake City Drivers in the Fast Lane). Tolling authorities, however, have generally employed proprietary RFID systems to collect tolls. For example, the E-ZPass system, used by 25 agencies spread across 14 northeastern states that constitute the E-ZPass Interagency Group (IAG), have adopted 915 MHz active tags employing a proprietary air-interface protocol. Those agencies issue tags manufactured by Kapsch TrafficCom Inc. (formerly Mark IV Industries Corp.’s IVHS Division).

E-ZPass tags and readers, however, are incompatible with the electronic toll-collection systems used within other states. For example, Florida’s SunPass and Epass employ the eGo Plus passive UHF tag from TransCore (the eGo tag uses a proprietary variant of the ISO 18000-6B standard). California’s FasTrak uses passive 915 MHz UHF 18000-6B-based tags from TransCore and 3M. The Kansas Turnpike Authority switched to the eGo Plus for its K-Tag in 2009. Oklahoma’s Pikepass, which has begun phasing out TransCore’s Allegro battery-powered transponders that it adopted in 2001, is switching to eGo Plus RFID stickers by end of this year. And Texas’ TxTag utilizes at least two types of transponders manufactured by TransCore: its legacy hard case AT5100 passive UHF transponder and the newer eGo Plus sticker.

The different types of transponders do not interoperate, according to Tim McGuckin, the executive director of OmniAir Consortium Inc. and OmniAir Certification Services (OCS), nonprofit standards organizations that the 6C Toll Operators Committee has employed to provide 6C testing and certification services. The OmniAir Consortium was established in January 2004 by McGuckin, as well as by New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Bridges & Tunnels, the E-470 Public Highway Authority, TransCore, the Texas Turnpike Division (TXDOT) and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, to enable the deployment of interoperable advanced transportation technologies and applications through the member-defined OmniAir Certification Program. At present, there are approximately 25 members representing suppliers, systems integrators and operators from the toll industry, including P.J. Wilkins, E-ZPass IAG’s executive director.

Although the 6B technology could be interoperable, McGuckin says, vendors (currently only TransCore and 3M offer 6B tags) sometimes make changes to the technology, making the toll-collection solutions they sell proprietary. This is the type of modifications that the group is trying to avoid.

“Historically,” McGuckin states, “the tolling industry has bought proprietary RFID technology, because tolling systems grew organically in different regions.” One system may be installed for a specific bridge, while another could be used within a neighboring state or an urban area. The problem with such isolated systems, however, is that a toll agency may be locked into a single vendor as its needs change or expand, and one agency’s solution may not be interoperable with another. Furthermore, a driver might require a separate tag for each system if he or she passes through several tolling areas. To address this problem, TransCore launched its eZGo Anywhere transponders, which are interoperable with the E-ZPass system, as well as most toll-collection systems that utilize the passive technology, in 2008. While some companies have adopted the eZGo Anywhere tag for vehicles in their fleet (see Avis Budget Group Plans to Put Interoperable Toll Transponders on the Road), no tolling agency has adopted the eZGo Anywhere transponder to date. (TransCore has declined to comment regarding its technology, or about any 6C plans, for this story.)

With an open system of tags based on the 6C standard, tolling agencies would not be locked into a proprietary system, and could purchase the most affordable technology for the purposes required. What’s more, drivers could theoretically use a single toll pass while traveling across the country, at multiple tolling areas. The 6CTOC developed a tag-programming standard in late 2011, which listed a set of toll-industry requirements, and published those specifications in its 6C Requirements Document.

“6C has some very attractive features but our members feel there’s a lot we don’t know about it,” E-ZPass IAG executive director Wilkins said in an article published by Tollroadnews. “There has been limited testing of it, especially in conjunction with the operation of others tags using other protocols… We’ve got an excellent protocol of our own (the IAG protocol incorporated in existing and new generation E-ZPass transponders and readers), but we are committing ourselves to national interoperability so we need to see what’s involved in reading tags like 6C along with IAG protocol tags.”

Last year, the OmniAir Consortium launched OCS to develop certification programs, accredit test labs and oversee test lab work related to using ISO 18000-6C RFID technology within moving vehicles. In August, the OCS accredited MET Laboratories as the first test facility for this purpose. Members of the 6CTOC will require vendors to provide OCS certification for future 6C RFID toll-collection system deployments undertaken within their own agencies—while at the same time, 6CTOC members are asking additional toll operators to join, and to help expand 6C standard adoption.

According to 6CTOC member Patrick Vu, Georgia’s State Road and Tollway Authority’s administrator for strategic business development, the advantages of the 6C EPC Gen 2 standard are low tag cost—typically, about $1.50 apiece—as well as the standard’s worldwide applicability and its ability to provide for fast reads within a tolling environment. EPC Gen 2 readers usually cost between $5,000 and $7,000 each.

The 6C group’s goal, Vu explains, is to develop a standard able to ensure that tags can operate from one state to the next, while remaining open and interoperable. With this in mind, MET Labs has begun testing for the OCS, to include conformance testing of various tags and readers within a toll-system environment, at a facility in Crofton, Md., provided by Xerox (located near the MET Laboratories test lab in Baltimore). Following that testing, test results are forwarded to OCS, which reviews them and, if warranted, issues a certificate of interoperability.

During testing, a 6C tag is attached to a vehicle that is then driven through actual toll gantries. The test will include using multiple speeds (up to 85 miles per hour), tag positioning and reader antenna positioning, as well as multiple or single lanes. Additional tests include temperature testing—ranging from -40 degrees to +70 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees to +158 degrees Fahrenheit)—in addition to humidity and ultraviolet testing. To date, two readers and two tags, all supplied by 3M, have passed testing and have been certified: two UHF readers (models ID 5204 and ID 6204), the Headlamp Mount Tag (model ID-HMT-NT-L3S) and the Windshield Mount Tag (model ID-WMT-NS-L3S).

Last year, the SRTA began providing the Peach Pass for its Atlanta area commuters, which employs the 6C standard. Previously, the Georgia agency provided eGo 915 MHz passive UHF tags, based on the ISO 18000-6B standard, but which were proprietary due to some unique features added by TransCore. During the past few years, however, following a 2008 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to expand the tolling system to some high-occupancy lanes, the agency began looking into switching to a 6C solution.

“We were looking at the price point for transponders,” Vu states. The authority realized that the use of 6C tags would enable competition among vendors, thereby reducing tag price. Since the tags would cost SRTA only $1.59 apiece, they would also make it possible for the agency to provide the initial 300,000 tags to drivers at no charge. SRTA is now distributing the resulting 6C tags, provided by Transcore, to drivers for free, says Malika Reed Wilkins, SRTA’s director of marketing and communications.

“It was literally a game-changer for us,” Vu says. The solution lowers the agency’s costs, from both reader and tag perspectives, and—as of summer 2011—was in place at 76 tolling points, using TransCore hybrid readers able to interrogate the legacy tags, as well as the new 6C versions. To date, SRTA has provided 190,000 of its 6C tags to the state’s drivers.

McGuckin says he hopes to see more 6C RFID technology vendors join OmniAir, though so far, 3M and TransCore are the only vendor members offering this technology. He speculates that the 6C Toll Operators Committee standard could have further implications beyond tolling. “Waiting in the wings is electronic vehicle registration,” he says, which is a wireless system employing RFID that could be utilized by state motor-vehicle agencies to identify vehicles’ registration compliance, as well as by other law-enforcement agencies, or for other purposes.