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What’s the status of India’s GPS-based toll collection project?

The government plans to leverage vehicle tracking systems for the project even as privacy concerns loom large.

Just as Indians were finally getting up to speed with the FASTag electronic toll collection system, the government has set its eyes on a more advanced and sophisticated tolling system – GPS-based toll collection.

What do we know so far?

How will GPS-based toll collection work? The government is yet to figure out the exact specifications of this system, but the general idea is that an onboard GPS chip will determine when a vehicle enters and exits a toll road and communicate this to a service provider using cellular internet. The service provider, in turn, will automatically deduct charges from a digital wallet or bank account connected to the vehicle based on the distance traveled on the toll road.

Launch expected by 2023: In December 2020, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari said that GPS-based tolling will replace toll plazas by 2023. In March this year, he doubled down on this commitment and said that the GPS-based tolling system will be implemented within a year.

Policy expected in November 2021: In August this year, Gadkari said that a “concrete” policy for the GPS-based tolling initiative will be ready within three months.

Some new vehicles come fitted with GPS trackers: Gadkari said in December last year that all new commercial vehicles come with vehicle tracking systems and the government will come up with a plan to install GPS technology in old vehicles. In March, he told the Parliament that old vehicles will be provided with GPS trackers for free. While it is mandatory for commercial passenger vehicles to have a tracking system, there is currently no law requiring personal vehicles to be equipped with such trackers, although some premium models do come with one.

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Pilot studies are currently underway in some highway stretches: 

  • On March 8, the transport ministry said in response to a parliamentary question that the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) had conducted a pilot project study to test the feasibility of GPS-based tolling.
  • Later in March, Transport Secretary Giridhar Aramane told Business Today, “The government is currently conducting a pilot project for satellite-based tolling on the Mumbai-Delhi National Highway. As part of the project, 500 vehicles have been fitted with GPS for the purpose of satellite-based tolling. The pilot project is likely to be finished within a year, after which it will be scaled up on the National Highway network.”
  • Towards the end of March, NHAI announced plans to make the Delhi-Jaipur national highway (NH-8) toll plaza free in the first phase but did not commit to the timeline of implementing a GPS-based toll collection system.

Expected to increase revenues: Gadkari said that revenues from highways were projected to touch ₹34,000 crores this March. He estimated that with GPS-based tolling, highways would generate ₹1,34,000 crores in revenue over the next five years.

Expected to decrease travel times: “With FASTag in place, ETA has improved by a minimum of two-four hours. Satellite-based tolling will bring additional advantages. We expect additional half an hour benefit on ETA with global positioning-based tolling,” Rajesh Kapase, Director, IT, Spoton Logistics, told BusinessToday.

Tender released for technical consultant: In April, the Indian Highways Management Company Ltd (IHMCL), which is tasked with the GPS-based toll collection project, released a tender to engage a technical consultant to prepare the roadmap for the project. The last day to submit bids was July 2. The government is currently in the process of reviewing the bids. The following section sheds more light on what the tender is about.

Presentations received from Korean and Russian companies: Gadkari said in August that the government has received representations from some Korean and Russian players who have the technology. But it is not known if these representations are for the technical consultant role or for the actual implementation of the project. MediaNama has filed an RTI with the transport ministry requesting more details on this.

What will the technical consultant help with?

According to the tender, the technical consultant who is hired after the bid process will help the government in the following broad tasks:

  1. Literature survey and case studies of:
    • Countries using GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) based tolling
    • Different models of GNSS-based tolling such as GPS, GLONASS, India’s NAVIC etc.
    • Data governance including data storage, ownership, protection, and how privacy issues of users are handled
    • Regulatory mechanism
    • Institutional mechanism
    • Enforcement mechanism
    • Performance statistics
    • Benefits to users
    • Manufacturer and vendor ecosystem
  2. Readiness assessment and working concept for GNSS based tolling in India:
    • The current method of toll computation in India
    • Ways to complement FASTag with GNSS based tolling
    • Choosing between pure GNSS (polar coordinate only option) or hybrid model
    • The infrastructure required at the end of NHAI
    • The infrastructure required at the end of vehicles
    • Current regulatory regime and whether it supports distance-based tolling and use of polar coordinates as means of establishing the distance between two points
    • Protocols for data generated, ownership, storage, protection, and destruction
    • Enforcement mechanisms that can be considered
  3. Standards and specifications: 
    • Specifications for the vehicle on board units (OBU) including liabilities of malfunction such as failure to capture or read data, maintenance logs, etc
    • Connectivity specifications such as 3G, 4G
    • Software specifications including what will be the data inputs, processes, and outputs
    • Public interfaces such as vehicle owner management console and grievance redressal system
  4. Changes to legislation and regulations: 
    • Changes to be made in law, rules, regulations such as the National Highways Act, Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, and Evidence Act, 1872 (for recognizing distance as a function of polar coordinates).
    • Can the Supreme Court order on the installation of GNSS in commercial vehicles be used for the purpose of GNSS tolling?
    • Means of identifying virtual toll plazas or tolling points
    • Means of estimating gains or loses because of GNSS based tolling
  5. Vendor consultations:
    • Manufacturers of vehicle on board units (OBU)
    • ISRO and Survey of India for mapping and satellite availability consultations
    • Vendors to map out virtual toll gates
    • Software suppliers (preferably local)
  6. Draft terms of reference along with standard bid documents (SBDs) for onboarding vendors for:
    • Development of cloud-based solution for computation of toll
    • For supply, installation, testing, and commissioning of on board units (OBUs), and repair and maintenance of OBUs
    • Running the real-time GNSS based tolling solution and passing on the information to IHMCL/NHAI
    • Furnishing information on vehicles that default

Looming privacy concern

The biggest concern around the whole GPS-based tolling system is that the government would essentially be able to track the movement of all vehicles in the country in real-time because just like FASTag, the new system would become mandatory over time.

The concern is only exacerbated by the fact that India is yet to pass the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, which might have provided some clarification on how the data can be collected, processed, and stored by the government. In the absence of a data protection bill, there isn’t any purpose limitation clause that will restrict the use of collected data beyond the stated purpose. Without proper checks and balances, it is one of the most sophisticated mass surveillance systems.

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Although the technical consultant tender document mentions figuring out how data will be generated, owned, stored, protected, and destructed as one of the tasks, the document mentions the word privacy merely once and has no reference to the upcoming PDP Bill. The transport ministry has also so far made no comments on how privacy concerns will be addressed.

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