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Touch ‘n Go’s RFID system is not perfect, but I’m hopeful

This is it. The future of digital payments is finally here. Well, actually, the future of digital payments is still in the future, but the good news is that the pilot programme for the future of digital payments is finally here.

I am, of course, talking about the thing that’s on everyone’s lips these days when they talk about Touch ‘n Go (TNG): The RFID payment system. However, even though there’s so much chatter around this new toll payment system, there is just as much confusion surrounding it.

So, today, we’re going to try and cut through all that, and give you everything you need to know about TNG’s brand new RFID system.

First, a little backstory.

If you haven’t been following the news and you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me get you up to speed. Last month, TNG announced that they would halt all sales of the SmartTAG device in preparation for a big switch over to a system that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) instead.

This new system works in two parts. First, there’s an RFID tag that’s embedded in a sticker which is stuck on your car. Then, that sticker is read by an overhead scanner mounted in the toll booth. You may have already noticed RFID lanes in some of the toll booths you frequent (some shared with TNG, some with SmartTAG, others standalone), so you should be able to spot the reader when you pass through them.

In theory, the RFID system is definitely an improvement over the existing SmartTAG implementation because it’s more accurate, quicker to read and since ours uses a passive system, it doesn’t require any batteries to work. Just stick it on and you’re good to go.

That said, TNG won’t be rolling out this feature for everybody so soon. In a commendable effort to try and iron out any bugs that might come up during daily usage, the company launched a Public Pilot Programme where interested members of the public can register and test this feature out first. Initial registration of interest began last month, and when the pilot programme actually kicked off on the 3rd of September, those who were chosen got to register and schedule their RFID fitment appointments.

Naturally, when a change this significant is made to something that a lot of us use daily, it raised a lot of questions. And those questions unfortunately didn’t have a whole lot of answers that were easily available. That’s why today we’re going to try and clear up as much of that ambiguity as possible.

Let’s start with something simple like payments

Although both the SmartTAG and the RFID work similarly in your day-to-day toll-paying activities (you drive into the lane, the scanner scans, deducts the required payment, and opens the gate), the two are actually very different. For starters, you can’t stick your TNG card into the RFID sticker like you can with a SmartTAG device.

Instead, the RFID system deducts money from your Touch ‘n Go eWallet app (Android, iOS). Yes, this thing.

That means, since the card and the eWallet are so conveniently disconnected, you will actually have to maintain two separate “wallets” with TNG. The digital eWallet for RFID payments, and your TNG card for stuff like parking and LRT rides (at least until QR Transit becomes more ubiquitous), which is upsetting because that just feeds into Malaysia’s big e-wallet problem — a lack of universality.

Since it draws money from the TNG eWallet, another downside is the lack of an auto-reloading feature. Remember the Zing Card that automatically reloads itself when your balance drops below RM50? Yeah, that function isn’t available on the eWallet just yet.

Although it’s more advanced, the RFID tag has its own issues too

For starters, the RFID tag is tied to your car’s number plate. That means, each car can only have one RFID tag and that tag isn’t user removable. In fact, it’s designed specifically to not be removable at all — if you try and peel it off, the whole sticker will be destroyed.

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However, the good news is that you can have multiple RFID tags tied to a single e-wallet. That means if you have more than one car, you can have all of those RFID tags synced up and deduct money from one single wallet.

Unfortunately, that makes sharing your RFID-ed vehicles with others (family members, for example) more difficult because they won’t be able to use their own e-wallet to pay for whatever RFID toll charges they may incur. I will admit that this it’s fairly unlikely that this particular scenario will become a big issue, but I’d love to be able to disconnect my RFID from my wallet and simply add someone else in. Maybe with a QR code ala-WhatsApp?

Registration requires a lot of documentation

Unlike buying a SmartTAG, which you can actually pick up from a vending machine, the registration process for an RFID tag requires a whole bunch of documentation. Right now you need your IC or passport, your driver’s licence, and a copy of your car’s grant or insurance cover note. That’s a lot of documentation for something that’s essentially a SmartTAG in sticker form.

I mean, there’s no authentication going on at the RFID sticker level — because authentication happens in your app — so it doesn’t seem to make sense that they would require that much information.

When I asked TNG about why the needed so much info, their response honestly felt a little vague. Essentially, it boiled down to it being part of their Know Your Vehicle (KYV) approach that will give TNG information about your car and double as a security measure so nobody can register for an RFID tag on a vehicle that isn’t theirs.

What exactly they do with that information was not disclosed to me.

For now, installation can only be done at selected “Fitment Centres”

This is probably the most cumbersome part of the whole registration process. While something like a SmartTAG device can simply be bought and placed in your car by yourself, the RFID tag isn’t self-install-able — at least, not right now. Instead, you need to head to specialised Fitment Centres (which require an appointment) to have a “specialist” install it for you.

Now, I can kind of understand where TNG is going with this. Since the sticker is designed to be a “single-use” device because it will be destroyed if you try and remove it, it’s probably a good idea to have someone who knows what they’re doing do the installation instead of some amateur.

However, the issue here is how TNG plans to manage the sheer volume of people who will likely want to get their RFID tag installed when this eventually goes live. For this pilot programme, for example, there were only five Fitment Centres and when I tried to book my installation, the nearest one available was in the middle of October. Imagine if they had to cater to the potential millions of vehicles on Malaysia’s congested roads. Not to mention the time everyone would have to take out of their day just to get the tag installed.

That said, TNG is working on solutions for this. They informed us that as more people get on board, they will eventually open more Fitment Centres including ones in petrol stations, near highway locations and even auto manufactureres/dealerships. They’re also looking at other installation solutions including a mobile installer — where the specialist goes to you — and self installation so users can do it themselves. However, they did not say anything about when these measures will be implemented so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Good news is, the actual installation is fairly quick

During the media event today, TNG helped those of us who were registered for the pilot programme with the installation of the RFID tags on our cars. The entire process took about ten minutes for my car, during which the RFID specialist installed the sticker and ran a couple of tests to make sure it would work.

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However, since it was a media demo, your mileage may vary. I suspect the most time consuming part of the installation would be when you wait for your turn. There were only a couple of bays in the Bangsar South fitment centre so if ten cars show up at once, you would probably have to wait a couple of minutes.

Bad news is, the RFID tag is installed in a fairly precarious location

According to TNG’s RFID website, there are two locations to install the RFID tags: One is on your car’s windscreen on the inside while the other is on your car’s headlamp. Touch ‘n Go, however, has chosen to install the RFID tags exclusively on the car’s headlamps for this pilot programme.

When speaking to the TNG rep, he informs me that this was the best and most reliable location based on their testing. They also said that the reason the windscreen wasn’t ideal was because these passive RFID tags should be kept away from anything with a metal content and even tinting — something most Malaysian cars have thanks to our lovely sunny weather.

But when you install something as fragile as a sticker on something as vulnerable as your headlamps, I’m not particularly confident of the tag’s longevity. Sure, there’s the risk of exposure to the elements, but there’s also the risk of simple vandalism by the unsavoury characters that lurk in our society.

Yes, you can’t steal these because they get destroyed when you peel them off, but what’s stopping a petty road-rager from simply ripping the tag off because they were pissed at you?

The silver lining here is that TNG informs me that these stickers are fairly resistant to stuff like rain, heat and even have a low chance of being damaged by stones because of the tag’s size. They should also last from between five to ten years before you need to change them. What’s more, even if your tag gets covered by mud, it should still be readable by the overhead scanner because RFID uses radio waves so no line of sight is needed.

That said, TNG haven’t exactly ruled out the possibility of using a windscreen mounted tag after the pilot programme, though they didn’t confirm with me whether they will open this option up in the future.

You can’t use the RFID tag immediately after installation

Don’t expect to drive right into the RFID lane at your favourite toll booth immediately after your installation and expect it to work. You will need to wait for an activation SMS from TNG before you can start using your RFID tag. The company tells us that you should receive your SMS within 24 hours — I got mine in about 3 hours after my installation.

For now, scanning accuracy is about the same as SmartTAG

Yes, technically, our RFID system can allow for a gateless gantry system like the one in Singapore, but as of right now you can’t just whizz into the RFID lane at 100km/h and expect the tag to be read successfully (and expect the boom gate to lift quickly enough). TNG tells us that the scanning rate is about the same as the old SmartTAG system so they recommend you go through the gate at about 20km/h.

However, this limitation isn’t due to the technological capabilities of our RFID scanners. Instead, it has more to do with the current tolling infrastructure that we have installed.

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According to a member of the RFID team, normally in a gateless system, you would only need about three RFID scannners mounted overhead to effectively scan all the vehicles passing through it on a five-lane highway. Because these scanners are so powerful, you don’t actually need to have one scanner per lane.

In fact, when the scanners are set up to only scan one lane — the way it is currently implemented — it is actually detrimental to the scanner’s performance. The technician explained that they had to reduce the power of the scanner and calibrate it in such a way that the radio waves don’t accidentally bounce into an adjacent lane and detect someone else’s RFID tag instead.

And the worst part is, even if we got rid of the existing tolling infrastructure and built these new gantries, it is still very difficult to implement a gateless system. That’s because it’s very difficult to punish those who break the law by passing through gantries without paying the toll. Due to the fact that many cars in our country use fancy number plates that don’t follow regulation standards, it becomes very difficult to read the number plates even if it gets picked up by a camera. I mean, look at this number plate.

There needs to be a deep overhaul in the entire system before a gateless gantry system can be implemented and even if that happens, it will take time.

That gateless future is still some ways away

Despite the fact that the pilot programme is set to end by the end of this year, the new RFID system won’t be replacing existing TNG and SmartTAG systems anytime soon. By TNG’s estimates, there is still another four to five years left before it will begin replacing anything, so you don’t need to panic about getting your car fitted just yet.

In the meantime, even if you have an RFID tag installed on your car, I wouldn’t recommend chucking your TNG card or SmartTAG in the bin just yet. Partly because not all toll booths have an RFID lane yet — only 16 highways do — but also because your TNG card could save you on the off chance there’s something wrong with your RFID tag or if the system goes down for whatever reason.

In the future, TNG says it has plans to integrate RFID scanning into other aspects like paying for parking. However, that integration will take time because they will need to work with each parking operator individually before implementing it.

At the end of the day, I’m hopeful

The way thing stand now, there are definitely a lot of problems to be worked out. Everything from how you install, where it is installed and what the best way to integrate this system into our daily lives, is still fairly up in the air. There is also no information on any kind of pricing or warranty for the RFID tags set in place yet (because RFID installations for the pilot programme are all free) so I can’t tell you if it’s “worth it”.

However, from a purely technological standpoint, there is a lot of potential here — enough potential to make me feel like this could turn out OK. Whether or not it eventually does, remains to be seen. But, speaking to the people behind this project inspires a modicum of hope in me, and that’s a definitely a good thing.

Nevertheless, I will be diligently testing the RFID tag out so be sure to stay tuned for a first-impressions and possibly even a full review in the coming days where I can answer any further questions you have about the RFID system. In the meantime, I’ll hang out in the comments section below so you can ask any other questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.