FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
Will there ever be a time when Spanish motorways will become toll roads? The debate over a possible change in the management model of modern "high-capacity roads", as the current law defines roads with more lanes, is underway. The discussion involves multiple issues, from network maintenance or environmental sustainability, to questioning free access to highly congested areas in large cities. New technologies can help solve this puzzle with solutions that make life (and travel) easier for users and other stakeholders. Some ideas have already been implemented in other countries.
With its more than 17,000 kilometres, Spain has one of the most extensive high-capacity road networks in the world. Of these, just over 3,000 (around 18%) charge tolls. But the funding that comes from tolls is lower than that of other large European countries such as France and Italy, according to the Association of Infrastructure Contractor and Concessionaires (SEOPAN) in a report prepared by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney. The report notes that between now and 2021 that funding is expected to fall even further, as the concessions for the operation of certain tolled sections have begun to expire (SEOPAN estimates that in total they add up to about 1,100 kilometres).
The association proposes to extend a pricing model to the entire current road network, including critical access points to the main cities (in particular Madrid and Barcelona), taking into account factors such as congestion, pollution levels, the state of the infrastructure and frequency of use, in order to determine the amount of tolls. In this way, it argues, it will be possible to increase the resources needed for maintenance, as well as to reduce traffic jams and pollution in congested urban areas. New technologies such as Big Data and the Internet of Things can help implement toll systems more tailored to each case, the report adds.
No official decision has yet been made. For the time being, in Spain long-standing payment methods are still being used. On motorways, this is known as shadow tolling, a system whereby private companies charge public administrations based on the calculation of the flow of vehicles travelling on a road and their type (length less than or greater than five metres), without directly charging users, who do pay with different systems on toll roads.
New intelligent control mechanisms and sensors distributed on the roads allow varying the toll rate depending on traffic to improve circulation. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Improvements and new perspectives
Domingo Jiménez, director of operations at Sacyr Concesiones, explains that artificial intelligence and machine learning can already help to significantly improve the efficiency of the calculation of shadow tolls, which is currently carried out by taking images at a certain point on the road and using data from electromagnetic spirals implanted in the road, but which requires an audit and manual verification.
"A machine can count the vehicles that appear in a video and also classify them. That seems easy, but it has to do so at high speeds, and in low visibility conditions, both at night and in case of fog or rain," he explains. To fine-tune its accuracy and thus also reduce the risk of fraud, he adds, it is possible to use infrared cameras or artificial vision systems, based on laser sensors. The latter are capable not only of detecting the passage of a vehicle, but also its silhouette, which would better determine its dimensions and enable different tolls to be charged depending on the vehicle type, he maintains.
In his opinion, the incorporation of automatic learning in these mechanisms would be a further step forward. "At first the system may not be able to recognise whether a vehicle is a car, a truck or a pick-up. If it is given the correct answer, it learns, and when the next pick-up passes it will no longer ask you." Sacyr is currently studying the integration of these technologies on the roads for which it has concessions in Spain and other countries.
If the decision is made to increase the number of toll roads and to consider incorporating alternative systems, it is also possible to analyse models already implemented in other countries. Màrius Gómez, an expert at the company T-Systems, points out some of the "multiple solutions" possible. On the one hand, he maintains, there are systems for calculating fees based on satellite data, such as the one applied to trucks in Germany (there are no tolls for cars there). On the other hand, there are also roads where free and tolled lanes coexist.
Thanks to intelligent control mechanisms and sensors monitoring the traffic distributed on the roads, tolls tend to rise or fall in price depending on whether there is more or less traffic, in order to better distribute the vehicles that are circulating. Some examples of this have already been implemented in several US states, such as Texas, California and Northern Virginia. Each system offers electronic options to pay tolls, in some cases also with the possibility of doing so after having travelled the stretch concerned within the established time limit.
Another alternative, adds Gómez, is to implement a vignette toll system (a sticker attached to a vehicle that certifies authorization to travel on a particular road or area in a certain period of time after paying a specific fee), but taking advantage of the possibilities of the software to expand the factors to be taken into account when issuing them (for example the environmental impact of each mode of transport or the areas in which the vehicle is going to circulate more frequently).
The implementation of the new existing software will extend the charging criteria in the certified authorizations through the vignette toll system. Credit: Asfinag.
Urban tolls and digital roads
A technology that is growing in use in new toll systems, also because it can be integrated with other intelligent elements, is automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), capable of detecting with cameras the characters of a number plate and taking advantage of the potential of automatic learning to compare the data it collects with those of a database and check that the rules of access to a given road are respected.
Gómez explains that ANPR can be especially useful for monitoring access to urban areas with tolls, as is the case in some European cities. Among them is London — where rates are charged in particularly congested areas of traffic and also for vehicles with emission problems— which offers a monthly payment system based on the registration of transits. Other cities with such systems include Milan, Stockholm and Oslo.
In any case, Gómez suggests "adding value" to Spain's current model, based on public-private collaboration on toll motorways through the concession system, which has allowed the country to "position itself among the benchmarks" in the field of high-capacity roads. In his opinion, the debate on a possible change of model must first take into account "different dimensions", ranging from sustainability to proportionality between payment and use, without forgetting the peculiarities of each territory.
Consequently, the evolution of toll systems cannot fail to take into account the transformation that the automobile sector is undergoing, with the development of autonomous and electric vehicles envisaged, as well as the integration of more and more services for users thanks to technologies such as 5G, argues Gómez. In this context, he says, the progressive digitisation of roads will help create a real-time interconnection between drivers, cars and the environment in which they move. "The road will become a platform for collaboration in the mobility of citizens."
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.