TCS maintenance Specialist shares the information on how TCS works

"Toll roads is a new technological milestone: such equipment and systems have not existed in our country before" 

Only a few people may consider that everything they see on the highway is a part of the important system which functions as an entity.  Sergei Girin, IT Specialist of UTS Equipment and Systems Maintenance Department on M3 Ukraine highway shared the information on who is responsible for operable condition of the equipment, how the system works, where the toll goes and why it is better to top up transponder account before it runs short. 

Unique System

—  Tell about the toll collection system: what is it aimed at and what kind of data on passing vehicles does it keep?

— The toll collection system or the so-called TCS is a set of equipment installed at Toll Plazas. The system is aimed at correct automatic determination of tariffs for the passing vehicles, proper reading of data from user’s transponder (while passing TP), proper work of the toll bars upon payment. The system keeps all the data on the car passage – the vehicle category, applied tariff, time and date of the trip, section passed, transponder ID. To record all these data, we need the equipment you see: sensors, cameras, bars.

—  What is your role in this process? What is your job aimed at? 

— I'm a Specialist of TCS maintenance, i.e. I ensure successful functioning of the equipment at toll plaza (TP). In other words, we are responsible for system maintenance and in case of any technical malfunction we perform emergency recovery operations.
TP functions non-stop that is why the maintenance is performed by the staff on 24/7 basis. One of the most important rules in the company is shift handover. During the handover, we tell our colleagues about the incidents occurred during the shift and what decisions we made for the new shift to understand the possible consequences of our actions.  Before the shift, we go the rounds and check the condition of all equipment. After that, we start working. Such method allows to catch up on work at once, without wasting time and searching for extra information. 

You should have serious experience to eliminate the defects quickly in the system which has not even existed in Russia until recently… Where did you learn?

— All company employees undergo an internship.  TCS maintenance specialists are not exception. The only difference is that you can see the principle of the systems operation, which we are going to work with, only on other toll highways. There is no absolute analogue in Russia, so we were trained on M4 Don highway where the toll sections appeared earlier than on M3. Our colleagues from M4 held trainings and lectures which allowed us to catch the algorithm of the automatic controls operation when the vehicles pass TP, to understand the installed equipment, to set up and test the software verifying all system components.

—  How long have you been working for the company? What skills are required to join the team?

— I've been working for the company since 2017 when the first TP was opened on M3 Ukraine highway. To become a part of the team, one should be an engineer, have basic knowledge in electrical engineering, and IT experience. In addition, it is important to be calm, cold-minded and fast in decision-making.

Technologies under Control

—  Why are people recommended to use transponders? What are the advantages of using the transponder over manual payment (by cash or bank card)?

—  We recommend to use transponder because it allows to save time and gives the possibility to get bonuses in the form of passage discounts. The device allows to pass TP non-stop which is especially convenient during peak hours. Using transponder is also beneficial for those who use toll highway regularly, the discounts sometimes reach 30% off.

How does the transponder work? What data does the system get from the device when passing TP?

— TP has special antennas installed (the priority lanes have two, the manual lanes have one in front of  the toll bar). When approaching the toll bar, if the transponder is installed correctly, the antenna reads the transponder ID and after checking personal account balance, the toll bar opens without cashier’s involvement.
In fact, the system analyzes the type of user's device. Totally there are four types: white, orange, grey and black. The first type includes proper devices, correctly installed with sufficient balance. There are no difficulties when using them. The second type includes devices with low balance. In this case the system will let the user pass, warning of balance replenishment by sending a message to the personal account, in this case the transponder will give a double sound signal. The grey category means adverse balance when passage is prohibited. And, finally, the black type means that the device is blocked. Usually, this category includes deactivated, stolen or resold transponders. It is impossible to restore them.

You said it is necessary to install the transponder properly. Does it really make the difference for the system work?

— Absolutely! When official dealers sell transponders, they give you the manual which is reasonable. The proper device installation will guarantee a correct system operation without delays. 
To install transponder in the car correctly, you need to clean the surface of the screen first, remove grease and let it dry. After that, gently remove the protective film from the device, attach it to the specified spot with the adhesive side, press down and hold for 10 seconds.
If your car has sunscreen glass or it is equipped with a special heating system / defroster, you should pay closer attention to the transponder installation as such screens possess particular spots for that. The location of the spots varies depending on the vehicle brand, that is why always read the manual to your car first. 
Storage of equipment also affects its performance. I often see that people put the device into pockets, bags and even luggage compartment and after they are surprised that the device does not work. It is prohibited to disassemble it, make mechanical or chemical impact or contact with water. The device may turn off when heated and the battery may run out of charge faster in case of cooling. When there is no need in use, it is better to put it into the protective metalized bag. 

—  Why does the operator recommend to replenish the transponder balance in advance?

— For the money to be credited to the account in time. It's actually about the payment channels: crediting to the account may be delayed. For this reason, the system warns the drivers in advance on special message signs that they have insufficient or low balance.
Do not ignore these messages, otherwise you may face an unpleasant situation when the system will move the devices from orange to gray zone - and you will lose time waiting for cash to be credited. 

Settlement System

Where does the money collected from transponders go?

— The road owner sets the tariffs and the operator is responsible for toll collection and maintenance. This is the worldwide practice. In Russia, the drivers often do not see the difference and think that the operator uses the funds it collects. It is not true. The toll collected, including that one from transponders, automatically goes to the road owner in full. It is the State Company "Avtodor" on M3 Ukraine highway.  UTS system records the transactions, i.e. the facts of payment, they contain the data on the date, time, section passed, traffic lane, car category and transponder ID.

The operator’s objective is to keep the system in working condition. It should follow the correct process of tariff calculation and classify the user's vehicle without mistakes. But even in case of failure when leaving the toll plaza the user notices double debiting from his/her transponder account or the system made a mistake when classifying the car category and debited more money from the account, one should contact the company issuing the transponder to correct the mistake.

—  What kind of failures are you talking about? What are their consequences?

— There is no ideal system, the failures are rare but occur: sometimes the toll bars close before the car has passed, sometimes the sensors which classify the vehicle category make mistakes. It happens due to different reasons: radio frequency faults, light sensitivity, sometimes software failure.
The most frequent cases when the luggage or accessories are attached on the top of the car. For example, a sofa, luggage compartment, bicycle, etc. attached on the top will be registered by the system using the higher category, which is incorrect. Only additional systems such as air conditioner or railing installed on the car but neither luggage or accessories should be taken into account when classifying the vehicle.  For this reason, cashiers and engineers watch carefully after car classification in order to process promptly with necessary adjustments.
In summer, the overdebited funds may be refunded if the video shows what is located on the top of the car, but in winter the situation is more complicated. If there is a thick snow layer on the top of the car, the system will assign a higher category to it. The system cannot "understand" what is covered by the snow. One will not be able to get the refund. So, I strictly recommend to clear the snow away from the top of the car to avoid such problems.

—  Information technologies are widespread nowadays. Do you use the global experience and technologies when maintaining and installing TCS?

— Indeed, all spheres of life are digitalized now, but TСS is a relatively new technological milestone for Russia. Such equipment and systems have not existed in our country before. French company VINCI shared its experience and technologies - its inventions proved their efficiency worldwide. Surely, we adapt many processes for Russian reality, but the base provided by the company allowed us to start this process. 
We are constantly improving the software, working on equipment reliability but there is still space for development.

Were there any attempts to hack the system?

—  No, there were neither breaks nor attempts. But it does not mean that we are not ready for them (smiles). We are sure the system is secure, it is audited annually and if any defects are revealed, they are eliminated immediately.