‘Why not one RFID for all?’ and other questions answered

Published November 27, 2020, 4:28 PM

by Inigo Roces

The rush to get an RFID installed has never been more palpable, particularly because the looming December 1, 2020 cashless transactions for tollways is approaching. While electronic toll collection has long been offered by our country’s toll operators, it’s only now that their value is more apparent in light of the safety risks of passing physical currency and potentially, the coronavirus.

As such, many motorists are now in a mad rush to get the RFID stickers from both major tollways, leading many to wonder a number of things about how our tollways are operated and how the long lines could have been avoided. Here, we answer many of your burning questions about how we’ve come to this point.

We also cover which RFIDs you’ll need for the tollways HERE, and answer questions about acquiring and installing them HERE. We also explain what happens when you don’t have an RFID by Dec. 1, 2020 HERE.

Which RFIDs work where?

Luzon’s tollways are operated by two concessionaires: Metro Pacific Tollways and San Miguel Corporation. On short trips, you’ll likely only need one. On longer out of town trips, like Baguio or any place far north, you may need both as you’ll be passing through NLEX and SCTEX (Easytrip) and TPLEX (Autosweep).

Metro Pacific Tollways (MPTC) operates NLEX – North Luzon Expressway; NLEX Harbor Link; SCTEX – Subic Clark Tarlac Expressway; CALAX – Cavite Laguna Expressway; C5 LINK; and CAVITEX – Cavite Expressway. To pass on these tollways, you’ll need their EASYTRIP RFID.

San Miguel Corporation (SMC) operates SLEX – South Luzon Expressway; STARTOLL – Southern Tagalog Arterial Road Tollway; SKYWAY – Elevated expressway; TPLEX – Tarlac Pangasinan La Union Expressway; MCX – Muntinlupa Cavite Expressway; NAIAX – NAIA Expressway; and SKYWAY STAGE 3 – Elevated expressway over Metro Manila. To pass on these tollways, you’ll need AUTOSWEEP RFID.

Why use different RFID systems?

Our tollways weren’t always owned by two major concessionaires. In the past, the tollways were operated by several different companies, each with their own solution for electronic toll collection (ETC). ETC was required by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) to be installed on all tollways but only as an option for motorists. ETC was not made a requirement to enter until the current pandemic.

As such, the operators adopted these systems for motorists’ convenience and never made them mandatory to entry. Furthermore, the TRB never required any operator to agree upon a standardized electronic toll collection system. All operators were free to choose which supplier suited them best.

You may remember that SLEX and Skyway once offered the E-PASS, an electronic toll collection box stuck to a car’s windshield. NLEX also had the EC-Tag, a box similar to the E-PASS. These systems had limitations and could only be read at shorter distances than the current RFID sticker systems. Cavitex was one of the first to use RFID with EasyDrive.

Thankfully, these operators have upgraded to the current RFID system, however, they each acquired these systems from different suppliers. As such, the RFID tags are slightly different from each other and require different kinds of sensors to read and process the stickers at tollgates. Not to mention each operator employs different software to process the data, log the transaction, and deduct the amount from the associated account.

Congressman Jack Enrile had actually filed a bill for ETC interoperability as far back as 2015. However, it has seen very little progress since then. Thankfully, this issue is getting attention again, now.

Why not one RFID for all tollways?

Earlier this year, the DPWH announced its intention to push for interoparability of RFIDs. This means you can just get an AUTOSWEEP RFID or EASYTRIP RFID and register it with the other tollway operator. However, this requires scheduling an appointment and driving to the customer care center of the other tollway operator. The RFID must be scanned and entered into the other operator’s database. This takes days, however, and requires the car owner to open a separate account for loading stored value with the other tollway (i.e. one account for AUTOSWEEP, another account for EASYTRIP, the same sticker). The stored value from one operator will not transfer to the other.

Unfortunately, the DWPH is still working on making this a reality. It’s likely that the safety risks from the current pandemic and the sheer volume of motorists acquiring RFIDs make this impractical to implement at this time.

Why can’t they be unified?

Each tollway operator has their own system for collecting toll wirelessly. The RFID is simply a radio transmitter that sends back information when a radio signal is beamed at it. The stickers may appear the same physically. However the main difference lies in the hardware and software that each operator employs. It’s how the system receives this number, checks its database, and deducts the toll fee where they differ.

Each operator will have to have access to a database of all the sticker numbers and information on the vehicle they are attached to. This may include sensitive private information like the vehicle’s make and model, name of owner, as well as contact details. What kind of data is collected and how it is processed and stored may be different with each operator. In addition, this data is linked to an account with its own set of sensitive private information that may be stored in a unique way. Each of these aspects — from hardware, to software, to payment system — has its own set of limitations and contracts.

Unifying these systems requires both tollway operators to agree upon a particular set of hardware and software to read and manage all this data. If one adopts the other’s system, this means changing some hardware and software and making adjustments to a new system. One operator will have to dispose of their current system and adopt another, costing millions if not billions in hardware, software, training, and debugging. In addition, both operators will have to open their databases to the other. This may leave many ETC users vulnerable to privacy leaks.

In many ways, it can be compared to shifting from a Mac to a PC, Android to IOS, or vice versa, including the passwords and stored accounts. While both may use some similar hardware, it’s the operating system and the way they process the data that are quite different. Not everything can be transferred as seamlessly.

As mentioned above, the DPWH is already working to unify these systems, but it will require much more time and negotiation.

Why can’t I stick it myself?

RFID stickers are essentially radio antennas attached to a microchip. These antennas are designed to receive a radio signal and send information back. Two RFIDs in close proximity to each other can interfere with the signal. In addition, other nearby metallic objects can also affect the signal. Modern cars have a lot of hidden metallic elements. Some new vehicles have metallic elements in their headlights that can interfere with the signal. Some kinds of window film / tint, particularly those with a mirror effect, also have trace amounts of metal that can affect the signal.

As such, the toll operators recommend having their personnel attach these stickers. They are already familiar with the intricacies of certain vehicles and know where best to place the stickers for the most reliable operation.

Why haven’t carmakers sold new vehicles with RFID stickers already?

Some carmakers have already begun to offer new vehicles with RFID stickers already attached. Currently, Peugeot is the only carmaker that offers cars with both EASYTRIP and AUTOSWEEP stickers installed on brand new vehicles. BMW, which is owned by San Miguel Corporation, will gladly have an AUTOSWEEP RFID sticker installed in your new car upon request. Some other luxury brands may offer this convenience as well.

Unfortunately, many other popular car brands have yet to adopt this initiative and it may vary from dealer to dealer.

Can’t I just transfer the sticker from car to car?

This is illegal. Violators may be caught and possibly fined. The Toll Regulatory Board (TRB) has already warned against this. Each sticker, after all, is tied with the details of a particular vehicle. In addition to collecting toll, each tollgate is equipped with CCTV cameras to visually verify that the vehicle passing through the gate is the same vehicle registered in their database.

I have several cars. Can’t I just have one account for all?

Yes you can. However, you must first secure an RFID tag for each car and get the corresponding account number. After, you can contact the customer service department of the tollway operator and request to combine the two or more accounts into one. The stored load of each will be combined into one account. You’ll simply have to load one account for all cars.

For now, this is only done through email and may take a few days. With the current amount of motorists making this request, it might take longer than normal.

We hope these answers clarify a lot of questions you may have. They may not make the lines for stickers any shorter but hopefully they’ll at least clear up some confusion.

Stay tuned to the site for more updates on possible extended deadlines for RFID implementation. It’s also a good idea to join your office, village, or baranggay’s social media (Facebook or Viber) group for announcements of RFID sticker sessions in your area.