FASTag RFID System Serves 97 Percent of Indian Vehicles

All new cars are equipped with UHF RFID tags, operators are signing up through their banks, and the system has reportedly increased toll revenues, while reducing traffic and carbon emissions.
Published: January 11, 2024

India has the world’s largest population, with approximately 26 million vehicles sharing national highways and expressways. The development and maturity of a radio frequency identification (RFID)-based tolling system known as FASTag collected billions of rupees for toll operators, while moving cars more quickly through the toll plazas that had previously caused backups and delays.

FASTag, the world’s largest electronic toll-collection system, is operated by the government’s National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). As of this year, says Akhilesh Srivastava, FASTag’s road safety ambassador and technology leader, 97 percent of all vehicles traveling India’s national toll highways have a FASTag UHF RFID tag attached to them. The program achieved that high level of adoption, Srivastava says, thanks to a journey through technology choices, public awareness efforts and mandates. COVID-19 also provided a level of incentive that brought late adopters to the technology.

FASTag RFID System Serves 97 Percent of Indian Vehicles

The system consists of an adhesive, RFID-enabled sticker attached to the windshield of every vehicle with four or more wheels, as well as RFID reader antennas installed above toll lanes throughout the country. One tag supplier is global RFID company PerfectID. There are 500 national and state highways on which the toll readers have been deployed, which automatically capture each vehicle’s toll-collection data. Back-end software confirms the car’s identity and its operator’s account, then deducts the appropriate funds, while prompting a barrier to open to allow the driver through the gate. Drivers must slow down, but typically do not come to a complete stop before the transaction is completed.

Traditionally, India’s roads department collected tolls manually in the form of cash or token payments. In 2012, Srivastava says, NHAI decided to investigate the best technology to deploy for electronic toll collection. The agency examined options such as GPS-based tolling and dedicated short range (DSRC), a Wi-Fi variant wireless protocol. Other options explored included active RFID, such as the TransCore transponders used in the E-ZPass program in the eastern United States, or cameras for license plate recognition. Ultimately, NHAI chose a passive UHF RFID solution.

India is a vast, densely populated country with political, social and economic diversity. While many remote roads throughout the country connect more rural communities, the toll roads are nationally or state-funded highways and expressways designated for drivers who must pay at key points along their journey. The government needed a system that would be affordable and accessible across the entire population, and that would be universally standardized despite the many languages spoken, as well as the different types of license plates issued throughout India. While artificial intelligence (AI) was in its early development at that time, it was not deemed mature enough to support such a system.

Providing Affordable, Easily Deployed Tags

Passive UHF RFID consists of a low-cost tag with no maintenance requirements. Drivers would not need to replace tags as batteries died, since the sticker relies only on the power from the transmitting antenna under which it passes. NHAI worked with a variety of UHF RFID technology providers to deploy the reader antennas that would capture the car tags in approximately 1,250 toll plazas, at which there may be five to 10 booths in each direction. The agency initially tested the system at one site, with a plan to roll it out to all plazas. “That, of course, is a massive project,” Srivastava notes.

The pilot began in 2014, and NHAI worked with ICICI Bank, which acquires UHF RFID tags and offers them to customers via their bank accounts. The technology was installed in a single lane at one site, then was expanded to other plazas as well. That continued for one year, Srivastava recalls, adding, “But it was not scaling. Very few drivers were using it,” due to a lack of incentive. The sluggish response was caused, in part, by a general lack of awareness of the system and the benefits it provided. Most drivers, he says, simply did not have access to an account dedicated to the technology.

FASTag RFID System Serves 97 Percent of Indian Vehicles

Additionally, Srivastava recalls, the toll operators were unhappy because the system was consuming one of the toll lanes, while a second lane was used by those who had erroneously driven through the FASTag lane without an account, then had to wait to make cash payments. For those with the FASTag, the barrier opened automatically, but in order to pay with cash, drivers were redirected to the neighboring lane. “That meant two lanes were blocked because of [the FASTag program],” he says. Since FASTag adoption was at only 0.01 percent, he explains, “We were blocking two lanes for them, and only three lanes, on average, are left to the remaining 99.9 percent of vehicles.”

Thus, Srivastava says, the team sought a new strategy and created a hybrid lane at each toll plaza. With that lane, those with a FASTag could drive through the gate more quickly, while those needing to stop and make a payment could see the benefit other drivers were receiving. “The second thing was to scale the awareness among the people,” he says. While the system was initially issued only by ICICI Bank, the agency brought in 20 to 25 more banks through which drivers could enroll, and adoption began to grow.

By 2017, NHAI reports, the program had reached 30 percent adoption, so the agency dedicated a second lane to FASTag users only, and adoption was soon up to 50 percent. When the pandemic began, the need to reduce human contacts through distancing resulted in people adopting FASTag so they would not need to roll down their windows or conduct transactions with another person at each toll. “Once we reached around 60 to 70 percent,” Srivastava states, “we decided to declare that all lanes were FASTag lanes.”

As of early 2021, Srivastava reports, all vehicles traveling through toll plazas must now have a tolling sticker with built-in RFID for electronic collection. Those who lack such a tag must pay a penalty in cash, which is typically twice the toll amount. Approximately 97 percent of four-wheeled vehicles or trucks in India now use FastTag. Stickers are attached to each new vehicle by default, by the automotive dealers and manufacturers, with more than 12 million vehicles now accessing the tolling system daily.

How the System Works

As each vehicle approaches the toll plaza, the tag on its windshield receives a transmission from the lane’s RFID reader. The tag’s chip is activated and responds with its unique ID number, and that tag ID is linked to key information regarding the car. That includes the license plate number and vehicle registration, which are stored in a dedicated cloud-based server. The solution links to the account information connected to that ID and confirms that sufficient funds are available. If so, passage is authorized, the barrier opens to allow the car through, and the toll amount is deducted from the user’s account.

Banks participating in the program offer their own apps with which users can view and recharge their accounts, as well as be alerted if there is a technical glitch—for instance, if an account has proper funds, but the tag is not being read properly at the plaza. Each plaza still employs at least one operator, and an operator is often provided for every two toll lanes, in addition to security and maintenance personnel. NHAI was focused on retaining jobs, Srivastava explains, by refocusing roles of workers to maintaining the gardens, toll booths and landscaping, as well as helping motorists with payment issues, rather than collecting money.

FASTag RFID System Serves 97 Percent of Indian Vehicles

With the program now fully deployed, Srivastava says, “We’ve seen tremendous benefits,” including a rise in collection amounts. Currently, the system collects 2 billion rupees ($24.2 million) daily, and NHAI expects to collect 6 trillion rupees ($72.7 billion) this year. This, he says, represents “a huge jump compared to the previous year.” In part, he notes, that is because funds come directly from each driver as they pass through a toll plaza. The technology has replaced a previous manual system by which private operators at each plaza collected tolls, then forwarded the money to the government.

Akhilesh Srivastava

Akhilesh Srivastava

The solution has reduced wait times for commuters, Srivastava reports. Typically, he says, the system detects, identifies and authorizes vehicles within a matter of seconds. Traffic delays that used to be around seven to eight minutes have thus been reduced to mere seconds at most toll plazas, while those in more congested areas are seeing delays of less than a minute. Worker productivity, meanwhile, has increased with the FASTag program, because individuals spend more time at work rather than in transit, and they are thus less tired than commuters who’d waited in heavy traffic in the past.

According to Srivastava, the system is poised to reduce carbon emissions based on the tolling program, since the idling of vehicles for 8 to ten minutes at tolls produced carbon dioxide. NHAI has calculated annual emissions reductions to equate to 10 million tons of carbon. Deployment introduced a few challenges, he notes, one of which was a potential for fraud. Commercial trucks, for instance, pay a higher toll than passenger cars, so some truck drivers attempted to pass through the automated tolls with passenger car stickers. In addition to RFID readers, however, the FASTag system included lane cameras and automated vehicle counters and classifiers, which confirm each tag’s authenticity. Violators could be blacklisted, and such incidents thus came to a stop over time.

In the future, NHAI says it may look at ways to upgrade the solution, including enabling a free-flow system by which cars would not need to slow down to be identified, and then to pay the appropriate toll. Such a system could rely on GPS and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) sensors. Some pilots are now underway involving such systems, Srivastava reports, adding that as AI has matured, license plate systems throughout India have become more standardized, meaning a license plate recognition solution could be a possibility in the coming years.


Key Takeaways:

  • India’s FASTag, the world’s largest electronic tolling system, leverages passive UHF RFID tags that are now in use by 97 percent of all cars and trucks in that country.
  • To make the system free-flow without gates or barriers, the next step could involve deploying GNSS satellite-based tags.