When I lived in the United States, nothing gave me greater joy than hopping in my SUV, opening the moon roof, lowering all the windows, and heading out on the highway. In fact, I loved it so much; I’d do it on a regular basis during the summer months. I’d drive for hours, only stopping for fuel. At least that’s how it was on the west coast. On the east coast, they had tollbooths. Periodic interruptions to my driving excitement, where I needed to deposit cold, hard cash in order to continue. Why am I bringing this up? Because Korea also has tollbooths, but they do it right.
Just how does Korea improve on the dreaded tollbooth experience? Over the past few years, the nation has implemented the Hi-pass System on most of its expressways. Instead of pulling up to a booth, vehicles are allowed to pass directly through the tollgate (it should be noted that the traditional booths exist in tandem). When they do so, a special card is read and deducts the toll. This process keeps traffic flowing, something critically important when one considers the sheer number of automobiles on the road in a metropolitan area consisting of 25 million residents.
Using Korea’s Hi-pass system requires an OnBoard Unit (OBU) and Hi-pass card. The OBUs can be purchased at a number of locations including department stores, gas stations, and highway offices. Hi-pass cards act like debit cards and need to be loaded with a balance. In addition to the time saving this system provides, adopters also enjoy a 5% (or more) discount on toll fees. You can learn more about the system, equipment, and discounts by visiting the official site. Please note, this site is only in Korean and requires a Windows computer.
How does it work?
The Hi-pass system and other electric toll collecting technologies grew out of an adaptation of military “friend or foe” identifiers. Nobel Economics Prize recipient William Vickrey first proposed the idea in 1959. He envisioned a transponder-based system for the Washing Metro area to alleviate congestion. Norway has been the world’s pioneer in the widespread implementation of this technology. It was first introduced in Bergen, Norway where electronic tollbooths popped up in 1986. In 1991, Trondheim introduced the world’s first unaided “full-speed” electronic toll collection system. Portugal was the first nation (1995) to enact a countrywide system for tolls, car parks, and gas stations.
For the system to work, there must be a transponder and a receiver in place. In the Korean Hi-pass system, these receivers are stationed at various toll-collecting stations along major expressways. They are calibrated to receive transmissions sent on a specified frequency. That’s where the OBU comes in. The device broadcasts on said frequency and when the two complete their digital handshake, the inserted Hi-pass card is debited, allowing for the successful collection of tolls without stopping traffic. This technology has also been employed to specially identify vehicles, creating a one-to-one relationship with transponder codes.
While I don’t personally own a car, I have had the opportunity to rent one from time to time in Korea. While not widely installed, some rental agencies do have cars equipped with OBU. This enables renters to make use of the Hi-pass lane, provided they have a repurchased card. Something that I highly recommend given its convenience. What do you think of the Hi-pass system? How are tolls collected on roads in your area if you live outside of Korea?