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New App Uses Smartphone GPS to Stop Erroneous Road Tolls

The software company VeriToll proposes to help transportation departments find faulty equipment by automatically crowdsourcing data from the smartphones of drivers who use toll roads every day.

Cars going through the EZ-pass lanes in a toll.
Toll roads can be a hassle for travelers, but perhaps even more so for government agencies that maintain them. Modern toll systems generally involve cameras, license plate readers and software for billing accounts or mailing people letters. When a camera stops reading properly, or there’s a power outage, or a software problem causes something in the roadside infrastructure to go awry, state transportation departments can lose revenue and drivers can be erroneously billed before the problem is discovered.

A California-based company called VeriToll is proposing to use smartphones to crowdsource an easier way to identify those problems.

In a news release last week, VeriToll announced AuditToll, software that uses a mobile app to collect GPS data from drivers’ smartphones and verify that toll systems are working, essentially by checking their location data against the DOT’s records of if, when and how much they were billed.

VeriToll Co-Founder and CTO Joseph Silva told Government Technology that when VeriToll was founded in 2012, its primary focus was professional and consulting services. But as three technological trends — “mobile, crowd and cloud” — became more prevalent over the last decade, he saw opportunities for crowdsourced labor to accomplish complex tasks, such as auditing a toll system.

The company launched a mobile app and back-end platform called CrowdToll in 2016 to help DOTs with “image processing,” or identifying license plates photographed by toll systems. With CrowdToll, the DOT could let anyone who downloads the app look at images of license plates — not whole plates but spliced, so no one is looking at someone else’s whole plate number — and help identify the number. It’s basically asking people to take a minute to help out the state, sometimes in exchange for paying off their own toll debts, if the state chooses to offer that.

Silva said the new AuditToll platform applies the same idea to find billing problems. He said undetected operational failures can cost DOTs hundreds of thousands of dollars an hour, and thousands of drivers are carrying devices that can help detect these failures at any given moment.

“People are already driving the road, they have a mobile phone with GPS, and they’re going to have to pay a toll anyhow. If they’re able to share that information on their phone as their drive … on the toll road only, we can use that bread crumb trail at a later point to compare it to the back office, almost immediately,” he said. “If the toll system didn’t see that person on the road, then we’re able to identify pretty quickly that there is a gap in the toll system. We can also audit the customer experience. If you as a consumer get double-charged, or you get an incorrect invoice in the mail, AuditToll is a way to get ahead of that.”

Silva said VeriToll sees two ways of getting enough users to make the app useful: by partnering with companies with vehicle fleets, and by working with state DOTs and their own localized apps to offer drivers incentives such as money or credits for sharing their data.

For people who already have a transponder such as E-ZPass with an account, an agency could use that account to pay the user if their data became part of an audit.

Toll road auditing isn’t a new concept, and there are other technologies to do it. Silva said lane-side auditing, whereby video cameras on the side of the road count cars, have been around for about a decade. But he differentiates this from AuditToll because AuditToll can see where a person was driving and whether the state mailed them a letter, or credited their account properly.

The alternatives, he said, can be costly. In 2012, a government agency paid a third-party contractor to hire a few dozen people to test-drive toll roads in the Washington, D.C., area, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a one-time test that no one was eager to do again soon. He said most toll roads require an annual audit to receive funding, usually involving a large financial consultant looking at data and doing spot verifications, sending people to stand by the side of the road counting cars.

“We’re giving DOTs the ability to do something they didn’t have the resources or means to do before, because it can be cost-prohibitive to do it on a regular basis,” he said.

AuditToll is available in the Amazon Web Services Marketplace.

Editor's note: Some details of a past toll road test in Washington, D.C., have been corrected.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.