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Toll Plazas may soon disappear, replaced with GPS chips

With GPS in every car, India’s toll collection is going high-tech.

Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways, may soon be ending the current toll collection system and replacing it with a satellite-based system. Speaking to ANI yesterday,, the minister said, “We are ending toll now and replacing it with a satellite-based toll collection system.” He explained that the toll would be determined based on the distance traveled and deducted automatically from the bank account.

The Minister has mentioned a satellite or GPS-based toll collection system multiple times in the past. In December 2020, he stated that the government would replace existing toll collections with a GPS system where tolls would be deducted automatically within two years. The next year, he reiterated his plan, declaring that all toll plazas in the country would be gone within one year. Gadkari further claimed that all new vehicles were fitted with GPS tracking systems and that the government would provide them to owners of older vehicles for free. A concrete plan was expected to be released in November 2021.

While the government has released few specifics on the exact mechanism of this project, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) held a stakeholder consultation workshop in August 2022, seeking inputs on a proposed Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) based tolling system. According to the proposal, the National Highway stretch will be geo-fenced and shall consist of virtual tolling points. Whenever a vehicle fitted with GNSS On-Board Unit (OBU) passes through these virtual tolling points, information on distance traveled will be calculated based on satellite signals from multi-constellations such as NaVIC, GPS, etc., and the applicable fee shall be computed by the central GNSS software system and deducted from the user’s bank account linked to the OBU. The government also released a tender seeking a technical consultant to prepare a plan for the project.

The government has not declared its future plans for the current FASTag system, which works on a Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) device that automatically deducts the toll amount when a vehicle passes through a toll booth. However, the proposed GNSS-based systems would make toll booths and therefore FASTags redundant. If the government does, in fact, remove all tolling booths across the nation, as the minister claimed in parliament, then the GPS-based tolling system would automatically become mandatory. FASTags were made mandatory for all vehicles from January 2021 and have been criticised for erroneously billing car owners over journeys they never made. This raises further questions regarding the possible inaccuracies of GPS tracking and whether it may lead to incorrect or false deductions.

The GNSS-based tolling system also raises enormous privacy concerns. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act 2023 gives the government the power to exempt itself from the safeguards laid down in the act, allowing authorities to collect, store, and use the personal data of citizens for any reason they see fit. A GPS chip installed in all cars would effectively allow an entity to surveil all vehicles in real-time, making it one of the most extensive surveillance systems in the country. Furthermore, there has been no guarantee provided by the government that the data collected for tolling purposes would not be used for any other purpose. As a GPS chip would indicate not just the distance but also the speed, it could be used to police speeding or other related traffic offenses. The car would be linked to a driving license, and the chip would also be linked to the car owner’s bank account, which may also be linked to a phone number, PAN card, Aadhar card, and other identification documents. Therefore, a tolling system may reveal an enormous amount of personal data about a person without their consent.

Another possibility is that the government contracts a private company to operate the GNSS system. In this case, DPDPA rules would apply, obliging the company to protect the personal data of citizens in accordance with the act. However, the government is still allowed to exempt certain agencies from the act or request data from the company. This may allow the government to access the location and GPS data of citizens in real-time from the private agency.

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