Tech Talk: Integrated Toll Module®

source: Audi of America

Audi’s note: We’re publishing a “Tech talk” series to share more about the people and technology behind our cars – who and what make an Audi an Audi. We hope you enjoy the series! To see all “Tech talk” articles, click here.

A car is so much more than four wheels, metal, leather, plastic and glass. It’s a passport to the next journey, the embodiment of mobility and freedom. It’s a personal sanctuary and a communications device—now more than ever.

Audi prides itself on the number of ways the driver can communicate to the outside world, with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies among the mediums. The latest is Integrated Toll Module® (ITM®), which allows drivers the ability to use touchless transactions to pay to use compatible toll roads in the U.S. with the vehicle’s built-in transponder.

The first V2I technology Audi introduced to the public was Traffic Light Information, which can tell drivers how much time remains until a light turns green or an optimal speed to make it through a traffic signal without having to slow down.

ITM went on sale starting in the Audi e-tron SUV in 2019 and has since proliferated throughout much of the 2021 Audi lineup. While on the surface, it’s simply a transactional device, in reality it’s so much more.

Familiar company you’ve never heard of
Do you own a vehicle with an auto-dimming rearview mirror? Maybe one of the 9 million vehicles made each year with an integrated HomeLink® garage door opener? Have you ever dimmed a translucent window on an aircraft? Then, you’re familiar with Gentex.

Gentex is a longtime supplier in the automotive and aerospace industries, helping introduce innovative technologies. That vision complements Audi’s.

The idea for ITM was conceived at a meeting between Gentex and its technology partners at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Shortly thereafter, Gentex brought together U.S. Audi product planners and reps from Payviam, the payment-collection platform that created automatic transactions with tolling agencies throughout North America. The result is a new consumer-based tolling technology adapted from the commercial trucking industry that utilizes greatly downsized hardware for automotive applications.

“Being in a commercial business for almost eight years before we started working with consumers, you cultivate business-to-business relationships and talk through issues,” said John Andrews, chairman, president and chief strategy officer of Bestpass, Payviam’s parent company. “What we’ve learned on the consumer side is you don’t necessarily have that luxury. You have to get it right the first time.”

Many of the new technologies that come to market in Audi vehicles often start as “innovation” projects. They’re studied in Audi’s startup-style idea incubators. Engineers find new ways to integrate ideas and technologies, but they don’t always make it past this stage; ITM did, specifically for North America.

What makes North America unique?
Already, a rearview mirror houses camera units, a compass and various other sensors. ITM added RFID (radio frequency identification) that could be turned on and off from the Audi MMI infotainment system. Innovative integration took the handiwork of AUDI AG engineer Markus Liepold and his engineering team to interface all electronics with the vehicles’ MMI touchscreen display. Fellow AUDI AG electronics engineer Christoph Steininger now leads continued ITM development for the brand.

“From the Audi A4 to the flagship Audi A8 and nearly all of our cars and SUVs in between, it was very important to design an interface that can allow integration in as many Audi models as possible,” said Steininger. “That will speed consumer adoption and will drive ITM’s success.”

One of the issues the team needed to address is that electronics create heat. Windshields also collect heat from outside the car and multiply the temperatures within the mirror housing. All of the technologies housed within the rearview mirror unit need to be “Automotive Grade”—able to hold up to the extreme conditions presented in a moving vehicle. The various components also had to adhere to U.S. Federal Communications Commission guidelines regarding radio frequencies and limits on interference.

ITM’s primary purpose would be to serve North American customers.

Unlike some regions of the world, where there is a uniform tolling protocol or plate reader, the U.S. toll road system is comprised of five major tolling hardware and software protocols, 90 tolling agencies, 12 interoperable groups and 20 tolling brands. ITM is the only factory-integrated, multi-protocol tolling device that allows access to all U.S. toll roads with one account, reducing complexity for drivers.

“ITM provides a great benefit to the driver as it frees them from maintaining separate tolling accounts and juggling multiple transponders for different tolling agencies to drive through different regions,” said Kamal Kapadia, Emerging Technology specialist, Connected Vehicles & Data, Audi of America. “Additionally, ITM clears up potential clutter on the windshield, keeping the clean lines of the Audi vehicle.”

Often, transponders are stored in a glove compartment and then stuck in front of a windshield or on it while traveling in toll lanes. That can lead to distracted driving or the signal being improperly read, which can lead to a fine. If a transponder is not set to an HOV lane setting in certain situations, that could also spell trouble.

Using ITM, the driver can turn the system on or off at will and switch to HOV settings through the MMI without any fumbling or needing to position a transponder across the top of a license plate.

Just the beginning
In an era of touchless transactions and the return of the road trip, ITM makes more sense than ever.

With a subscription, a driver can help ensure he or she can cross from region to region on toll roads without interruption. On a grander scale, a fleet operator might never have to worry about transponder fines or forgetting to refill a toll account. On larger scale still, it could be a beneficial congestion-management tool for every toll road driver.

But, imagine more.

Someday, RFID technology could be used in fast food or coffee shop lines to pay for items. It could be used to pay for ferry passes. As many consumers do today with their phones, an Audi could be used as a payment device, using this very same technology. It’s part of a larger ecosystem, whether the car is communicating with infrastructure or with other road users.

When looked at as part of a larger ecosystem, it’s about more than a car. It’s about connecting to the future today and helping customers navigate life with ease.