Taiwan's new electronic toll collection system opened to a less than stellar debut yesterday, as toll lanes designated for the new automated technology attracted mostly motorists who were not equipped to use the system.
The 10-day test run of the scheme began with a special lane set aside for the system at each toll station on the No. 3 North-South Expressway between Houlong in Miaoli County and Jhutian in Pingtung County.
Drivers with pre-installed on-board units in the cars were able to cruise through the toll lane without stopping and have the toll automatically deducted from their value storage card. But they were outnumbered yesterday by motorists who mistakenly charged through the lanes without being equipped for it.
Because there were few cars on the highway yesterday afternoon, the snafus did not interrupt the flow of traffic. They resulted, however, in chaotic incidents that the system's operator hopes will be resolved by the time the technology is officially launched on February 10.
Local motorists deserved some portion of the blame for the opening-day glitches. Signs posted one kilometer from the toll station clearly indicated that the innermost lane was designated for electronic toll users only, and workers tried to flag motorists without the on-board unit away from the designated toll lane as they drew closer to the toll booth.
Those signals provided little resistance to some drivers, however, who hurtled up to the toll booth expecting to see a toll collector and getting a little black box instead.
They later learned that their license plate numbers had been recorded by surveillance cameras set near the system's electronic sensor, and would be required to pay the NT$40 toll within 10 days after receiving a payment slip from the manufacturer.
Some of the drivers blamed the confusion on the lack of promotion done by the Taiwan Area National Expressway Bureau and the system's main contractor, Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co.
Far Eastern, though, has been broadcasting television commercials touting the system since last December.
The confusion did lead to potentially dangerous situations. Some drivers swerved to the right at the last second to avoid entering the electronic toll lane, barely avoiding accidents, while others hastily shot their cars in reverse to enter the correct lane.
Others passed through the toll lane, but then suddenly parked their car in the middle of the freeway and ran back to the toll booth to pay their NT$40.
The system's trial period will last until January 25. When it is officially launched on February 10, the technology will be installed in one lane for large vehicles and one for compacts at all toll stations on Taiwan's two major expressways.
The project developed under the build-operate-transfer model was designed to accommodate Taiwan's 6 million daily freeway drivers more efficiently, but it turned into a political hot potato over the last three months of 2005.
Many people, including legislators, believed that Far Eastern was cheating both the government and motorists by setting an unusually high initial cost of installing the on-board unit. That price has since fallen to NT$1,180, and will be sold at NT$680 to the first 200,000 buyers.
At present, an unofficial petition to boycott the system is being circulated on the Internet and in online forums, stressing that Far Eastern was "putting the cart before the horse" by stripping consumers of their money when it was supposed to provide a system that would benefit them.
"By the time the Ministry of Transportation and Communications expects the collection system to reach a user rate of four percent (roughly 60,000 users per day), Far Eastern will be begging people to buy OBUs," the e-mail said, playing on a recent comment by the chairman of Far Eastern Group that "nobody was forcing (people who considered the OBU expensive) to buy it."