It's not impossible to avoid toll roads, but it's definitely inconvenient. And tolls are too, especially if you refuse to carry change or haven't ordered one of the right passes that charges as you drive through.
Toll roads become most problematic for drivers who log a lot of miles on different roads with incompatible systems — meaning the drivers have to manage multiple accounts to avoid getting hit with fines. This means they either mount several toll transponders to their windshields, which can impair vision, or make sure they always grab the right one at the right toll booth.
But what if U.S. toll authorities could all grow up, agree on a mutually beneficial business model and let drivers use one system across the board?
That's what Audi is hoping to do with its latest technology — or at least make toll roads less of a hassle for drivers. Certain models available from Audi sold in North America will be fitted with integrated toll technology that is compatible with 98 percent of United States toll roads, as well as some in Canada and Mexico.
How the Tolls Talk
Audi's system relies on a combination of software and hardware to work, says Amanda Koons, a product and technology communications representative for Audi, who explained the new technology via email.
Instead of cluttering up the car's windshield with bulky transponders, Audi has embedded a toll module in the car's rearview mirror. These mirrors are made by Gentex Corporation, which already supplies the automatic dimming rearview mirrors in Audi vehicles, and the design looks exactly the same.
To use the integrated toll module, drivers still must register their vehicles and set up accounts, and they'll still need multiple accounts for the different toll networks — though they will be much easier to manage. Once the account information is stored in the car, it'll be simple to zip through tolls stress-free. The system even works in high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. Koons says Gentex was responsible for collaborating with all the necessary toll authorities to ensure compatibility.
"For tolls that require more than one passenger in the vehicle, the driver can adjust the number of occupants via the infotainment system," Koons says. "The only thing that is managed through the infotainment system is the number of passengers (some HOV tolls require two or more passengers in the vehicle) and turning the module on and off."
Audi is the first automaker to introduce this type of toll system. Though the company has not yet disclosed which models will be the first to offer the system, it will eventually be available across the brand's entire lineup. Koons says that the system cannot be retrofitted to older Audi vehicles. "Now that we have a technology like this, it's plausible someone could drive from Florida to New York without having to use three different toll tags, which is much more convenient and less stressful for the driver," Koons says.
The Incompatibility Problem
So, aside from being able to drive from Florida to New York without one toll transponder, what makes interoperable tolls so important? Take Florida for example. As of mid-2017, the state uses two systems called E-Pass and SunPass, but neither are compatible with E-ZPass, which is the largest toll collection program in the world. E-ZPass operates and is accepted in 16 states (mostly in the Northeast) and represents about 40 different tolling authorities.
According to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's SunPass is trying to become compatible with E-ZPass and has invested in the necessary hardware and software upgrades, but they are getting stonewalled because "it's complicated."
The situation is similar along the Illinois/Indiana border. Indiana uses E-ZPass and Illinois uses I-Pass, and though the systems are compatible (E-ZPass transponders can be used on I-Pass roads, and vice versa), in 2010, Illinois began charging I-Pass users a "3-cent-per-transaction-fee" for using the Indiana toll roads and Chicago Skyway. The Chicago Skyway toll bridge is one of the main ways to travel between southeast Illinois and northwest Indiana, and in 2005, became the first privately owned highway in the United States. As of 2015, the Skyway is owned by a group of Canadian investors, meaning that a commuter between the two states has to pay tolls to three different entities.
So far nothing has made much difference on the network that is toll roads, but perhaps Audi's integrated toll technology could finally be the game changer that pushes toll authorities to introduce one system that works across the board — we can only hope, right? But it's not the only thing Audi is doing to be more connected. The toll technology is just part of a larger rollout the automaker calls "vehicle-to-infrastructure" (V2I) technology, which aims to advance technology, and improve things that seem totally outdated — like those aforementioned toll roads.