SMC: We will not make money from shift to cashless expressway transactions

Ramon Ang addresses your concerns
by Drei Laurel | Dec 10, 2020
PHOTO: Leandre Grecia

Despite continuous dissemination of information from the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and tollway operators, there still seems to plenty of question marks surrounding the shift to cashless tollway transactions.

Surprised by the confusion? We aren’t. Remember, this is a massive change we’re talking about. What’s more, it came relatively out of the blue, too, because of the onset of COVID-19. Even San Miguel Corporation (SMC) boss Ramon S. Ang says his company could never have been prepared for such a sudden shift.

“Autosweep RFID has been available for free to motorists for over five years. However, despite continuing efforts to promote it in villages, malls, and the expressways, penetration has remained low—at only in the low 40% as of January to July this year,” Ang said in a statement.

“All that changed with the pandemic and the government’s decision to implement 100% cashless toll collection. Given that we budget and allocate resources before the year starts and usually based these on previous, actual, and projected needs, we simply could not have foreseen that a pandemic would necessitate government mandating fully cashless transactions.”

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Ang also assured motorists that this isn’t some ploy to squeeze motorists out of their hard-earned money, either. According to him, SMC is shouldering additional costs to comply with the government mandate.

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“In fact, the additional expenditures being made for the unplanned implementation of 100% electronic toll collection—including additional manpower, new machines to upgrade all lanes at toll plazas, as well as the sourcing of cards and stickers to be given for free to millions of motorists (many of whom are non-regular users) will not be passed on in the form of higher toll fees,” Ang explained.

“We are shouldering the costs as part of our compliance with the government’s mandate, and to show our support and solidarity with the country in its fight against the pandemic.”

Ang also shared that all SMC tollways are now RFID-ready and that the company’s system has a 98% read rate from up to five meters away. He acknowledged, however, that SMC is currently trying to address a sticker shortage.

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“This was largely due to the suddenly much larger demand for RFID stickers, which, as mentioned earlier, we could not have projected. We do not just “print” stickers. These are specially ordered from foreign suppliers, who also have manpower and production limitations due to pandemic restrictions in their respective countries. This has led to limited and staggered deliveries.”

He added that the surge in applicants came from non-regular users, saying despite the high demand for RFID stickers, traffic volume along SMC expressways remained low.

Authorities will begin handing out fines to motorists who improperly enter RFID-only lanes beginning on January 11, 2021. Do you think expressways will have the situation under control by the time that date arrives?

We are posting Mr. Ang’s message here in full to possibly clarify any more questions about Autosweep:

To our valued motorists using the STAR Tollway, South Luzon Expressway, the Skyway System, NAIA Expressway, and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway:

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I heard the many concerns and issues voiced by many of you with regards to the implementation of the 100% cashless system at our tollways. I would like to thank you for the feedback. Please know that your experiences have informed and influenced many of the measures we’ve put in place to cope with this necessary measure.

Please allow me to clarify, address, and offer up our solutions to the issues you’ve raised, in the hopes of assuring you that we are doing our best serve you.

Government is implementing this as a safety measure. We will not make money out of it

Cashless toll collection was mandated by government as a measure against the spread of COVID-19. It is meant to eliminate physical contact and the exchange of physical money and curb the potential spread of the virus.

It is not a means to extract more revenue from motorists. In fact, the additional expenditures being made for the unplanned implementation of 100% electronic toll collection—including additional manpower, new machines to upgrade all lanes at toll plazas, as well as the sourcing of cards and stickers to be given for free to millions of motorists (many of whom are non-regular users) will not be passed on in the form of higher toll fees.

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We are shouldering the costs as part of our compliance to government’s mandate, and to show our support and solidarity with the country in its fight against the pandemic.

We could not have prepared for the pandemic and 100% fully cashless transactions

Like many who felt unprepared for the long queues at stickering stations to get their RFID stickers, we were also not fully prepared to implement 100% cashless transactions in just a matter of months.

Autosweep RFID has been available for free to motorists for over five years. However, despite continuing efforts to promote it in villages, malls, and the expressways, penetration has remained low—at only in the low 40% as of January to July this year.

All that changed with the pandemic and the government’s decision to implement 100% cashless toll collection. Given that we budget and allocate resources before the year starts and usually based these on previous, actual, and projected needs, we simply could not have foreseen that a pandemic would necessitate government mandating fully cashless transactions.

Continue reading below ↓

All toll plazas at our expressways now fully compliant and RFID-ready

Despite supply and logistics limitations that come with the sudden shift to fully cashless transactions during a pandemic, what’s fortunate is we did not stop investing in, and improving the Autosweep system, over the years.

We have actually been increasing the number of RFID-equipped lanes at our toll plazas, to further encourage more motorists to shift to electronic toll collection, which provides more convenience for them and lessens traffic congestion. This has made it easier for us to comply with the government’s mandate.

It is worth noting, too, that our system has a 98% read rate and a detection range of up to five meters resulting in faster and more reliable throughput at toll plazas. The system is also equipped with “real-time” loading, meaning even if you forgot to reload and can only do so when you are already at the toll plaza, the load will be credited in real time, further minimizing traffic congestion.

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However, there was a sticker shortage

This is something we admitted in public. This was largely due to the suddenly much larger demand for RFID stickers, which, as mentioned earlier, we could not have projected. We do not just “print” stickers. These are especially ordered from foreign suppliers, who also have manpower and production limitations due to pandemic restrictions in their respective countries. This has led to limited and staggered deliveries.

Nevertheless, we were still able to achieve our targets and place bulk orders that have been arriving in tranches, well within our timetable.

We increased the number of stickering stations, and adding over 100 more

As promised in an earlier announcement before the December 1 deadline, we have been activating more RFID installation stations as soon as shipments of stickers arrive. From our original 53 stickering stations, we now have 94 total existing and active stations at our toll plazas, gas stations, customer service centers, and at least one in a transport terminal hub.

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Currently on process are 62 more, including additional gas stations, transport terminals, LGU municipal halls, LTO offices, church parkings, university areas, and major arenas. All in all, we’re looking at a total 156 outlets.

In the meantime, we continue to provide free installation to various LGUs, private villages, private companies (for their fleet and employees), government offices, among others.

We were able to provide this service to 242 events on top of our existing Autosweep RFID stations. Our activations have a minimum of 200 vehicles to as high as 1,200 vehicles served per set-up. We do this to lessen congestion at the Autosweep stations.

We will start activating our offsite stations beginning this week (at least 3 stations per week) until the bulk of the stickers arrived in Dec. 18, 2020. Once we have enough stocks to support all our stations, we will activate our LTO, Malls, Terminal Hub, and all the remaining stations in our pipeline.

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Before the end of Dec 2020, we will complete the 156 sites we promised to deliver.

The surge in applications came from non-regular users

We experienced large crowds at installation sites nearer to the government’s deadlines of November 2 and December 1. This crowding even led to the closure of some installation stations at the time, necessitating our implementation of an online reservations system, to avoid “walk-in” crowding.

We observed that while there was a huge spike in RFID tag availments, traffic volume has remained in the same low level—showing that the huge increase in tag availments come from non-regular users trying to beat the government’s deadline.

Stickering will not stop after December 1 or even after the January 11 full implementation

We have always maintained that for non-frequent or non-regular users of our expressways--there is no need to panic and rush to the expressway toll plazas or installation sites at the last minute.

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Apart from government relaxing its rules until January 11, we have made continuous announcements to assure the public that stickering will continue and will not stop.

If you have to travel on the expressways after December 1 but have no RFID sticker, your Autosweep-to-go RFID sticker will be installed as you line up and enter the toll plaza. We have designated lanes across all major entry points and major toll plazas of all southern and northern expressways as Autosweep-to-go installation lanes. This system will be retained even after the January 11 strict implementation because we recognize there will always be a need for stickering, especially for vehicles that come from outside Metro Manila.

That said, we will still maintain one cash lane per toll plaza, where vehicles with no RFID stickers will be allowed entry and given their Autosweep stickers.

Apart from the expressways, we will also retain installations sites outside expressways and increase stickering activities in villages and barangays. We are taking delivery of specially-designed wing vans for our RFID caravan program.

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Interoperability is hard, but we are working with Metro Pacific Tollways and DOTr on it

There is no single RFID system for the Metro Pacific Tollways and San Miguel Corporation tollways for the simple reason that as separate companies, we use different technologies. And while the DOTR and both companies have been working on interoperability prior to the pandemic, for so many years, with no mandate from government to adopt one system, both operators, independent of each other, continued investing and using the technology that worked best for them.

In our case, in 2015, we found Autosweep a superior and far more efficient and convenient platform for motorists, compared to the old “E-Pass” system used by the previous operator of the southern tollways. First, it made RFID units absolutely free since its implementation. In the old system, you had to pay over P2000 at one point for the old E-Pass plastic tag. Subsequent upgrades and investments over the previous years have also improved Autosweep throughput and widened coverage.

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The systems used by both operators are also vastly different. The Autosweep system allows motorists to register their accounts with Easytrip, so these can be used in MNTC tollways. However, it’s more complicated to integrate the system to the Autosweep system, but we are working on this.

The pandemic, which nobody foresaw, and the mandate by government for expressways to go fully cashless for safety and health reasons, which nobody also prepared for prior to the quarantine, makes interoperability even more important.

Were employing a host of measures to make it easier for motorists

To accommodate the large volume of motorists applying for RFID stickers, we have been implementing the following:

  • · Increasing manpower and equipment to fast-track the pre-enrollment and pre-activation of new Autosweep kits.
  • · Extending installation hours within the carriageway to 24 hours, seven days a week. This includes the Skyway Runway Plaza, Old NAIAX toll plaza, C5 toll plaza and Nichols and Calamba toll plazas.
  • · Activation of 100 new installation sites immediately, as soon as the expected bulk delivery of RFID stickers are received.
  • · Increasing tag allocation at existing sites.
  • · Increasing offsite installation at barangays, villages, etc.
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We, at San Miguel Corporation, focus on effecting real change in whatever we do. While we offer no excuses to our shortcomings insofar as RFID installation is concerned, please know that we are serious and determined to get this right and make this work for everybody. Thank you.

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PHOTO: Leandre Grecia
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