Radio frequency identification can greatly speed up toll collection, yet for some reason the opposite has reportedly happened in Malaysia.

 

Years ago, a friend of mine told me a groan-worthy joke: “I had a phobia of speed bumps, but I’m slowly getting over it.” I smacked my forehead when he said it, but it still made me chuckle. At the moment, Malaysian drivers are experiencing an unexpected speed bump of their own.

I’m old enough to remember when paying tolls on bridges and highways entailed waiting forever in a long line of cars and trucks as each driver, in turn, approached a gate and then either handed money to a person stationed at a booth or else tossed change into a basket. Sometimes, the coins made it into the machine, causing the gate bar to rise. Other times, the coins bounced and landed on the ground, requiring drivers to get out of their cars and endure a cacophony of angry horn honking while searching for the wayward money. If I had a dime for every time that happened to my father, I’d have been able to cover all his tolls for a year. If only there were an easier way, I remember thinking as a kid. Well, there was, and it came in the form of radio frequency identification.

Several U.S. states implemented systems by which cars equipped with a small device containing an RFID tag could simply drive under a gate reader and thereby pay tolls without having to either interact with gate personnel or play coin-toss at the baskets. It wasn’t long before toll-collection areas throughout the United States had dedicated certain lanes for cars with RFID tags, and other lanes for people paying cash. This made a huge difference, visibly reducing congestion and making life easier for drivers—not to mention decreasing the risk of toll workers endangering their lives when drivers became stuck at gates due to a lack of pocket change.

In fact, when I first interviewed at RFID Journal back in 2005, one of the first things former editor Paul Prince asked me by way of explaining RFID was “Are you familiar with E-ZPass?” Here in New York, the E-ZPass electronic toll-collection system was designed to replace the need for cash, coins and toll tickets, with drivers establishing an account, prepaying tolls and attaching a small device to their windshield, enabling them to bypass all the frustrating gate chaos. The system was so easy to use and so commonly seen, even 17 years ago, that simply being asked Paul’s question was enough for me to grasp what the technology was during a job interview: “Oh, right, that’s how I pay tolls when I travel upstate to see my family. That’s the plastic thing on the window. Got it.”

RFID for toll collection has long proven its effectiveness. That’s why news stories coming out of Malaysia this week took me by surprise. A website called  Kosmo is reporting that an RFID system has caused a massive congestion problem at Bandar Seri Putra, Sungai Besi Toll Road and other tolling areas. According to the report, rather than speeding up traffic and ensuring a smoother vehicle flow, the technology has somehow added around 30 minutes to the time required for cars to pass through toll booths.

Another article,  published by MalayMail, blames the problem on a system called RFID: PLUS, which was supplied by  Touch ‘n Go to multiple toll plazas throughout Malaysia starting on Dec. 16, 2021. Malaysian news outlets have reported congestion at these toll-collection sites, with drivers apparently complaining on social media about vehicles having to back out of booths due to the system failing to detect their affixed RFID stickers. The media have made it seem like RFID is a disaster for toll collection, which has prompted the nation’s works minister, Datuk Seri Fadillah Yusof, to order  PLUS Malaysia to publicly address the problem.

As someone who has witnessed RFID-enabled tolling systems improve traffic conditions for many years, I can’t help but cringe at reports like these. There are always bugs to be worked out of any new technological deployment. It’s an inescapable aspect of innovation. RFID-based toll-collection systems are not new in general, but this system is new to Malaysia, and the kinks being experienced there will absolutely be ironed out, just as they were everywhere else the technology has been implemented.

Whatever snafu is causing the system to fail will be pinpointed and corrected, enabling citizens to benefit in the same way E-ZPass users have benefitted on most tolled roads, bridges and tunnels throughout the Midwestern and Eastern United States. Hopefully, reporters will resist the urge to spread fearmongering in the meantime, implying RFID doesn’t work—because it does. Malaysia’s unexpected traffic problem is just a matter of growing pains, and it won’t be long before those using the system will be glad it’s there. This is just a temporary speed bump, and the nation will soon get over its phobia.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Outside the RFID world, Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture. You can contact Rich  via email.