Car owners in Singapore must have heaved a collective sigh of relief. When the dreaded ERP 2.0 road toll kit rolls out from next month, they can choose not to fix a clunky screen onto their windscreen.
They still have to set up an antenna and control unit – two out of an original three-piece on-board unit (OBU) – but many will be thankful for small mercies handed out by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) this week.
The decision comes after the government agency has taken in public feedback, it says. No doubt the huge uproar questioning the need for this “next-gen” unit earlier has played a part in this.
Now, unfortunately, comes the unwanted rollout of a costly project that has taken nearly 20 years to complete, if you count its early efforts. It is clearly outdated and inconvenient for users.
Many questions have already been raised about this “next-gen” ERP 2.0 unit when it was unveiled two years ago. Most damning was why it was even necessary.
Okay, it will use satellite tracking to monitor how many kilometres you drive, but there are now no plans for the distance-based road pricing that it enables, despite skyrocketing car prices due to record COE (certificate of entitlement) costs.
In other words, one of the biggest reasons for the new ERP 2.0 unit isn’t relevant today, unless transport policy changes. And the ugly road gantries that have sprung up over the years will remain, at least for now.
What about the other “next-gen” features? Real-time traffic information? Well, isn’t there Google Maps or Waze for that? Some cars even have these features built in now and they have bigger screens nicely integrated into the dashboard.
In saying that its own screen is optional, the LTA this week also pointed out that a mobile app could be used to access some of these services on the go.
It’s even going to have a software development kit (SDK) that developers can use to create apps to tap on these services.
You wonder why that hadn’t been been in the plans earlier, as smartphones came into the picture, starting with the iPhone in 2007.
And how is it that a project to track cars in Singapore has taken years to complete, when an app used to track people in the country during the pandemic took just weeks?
The answer lies in the approach to technology projects. Today, big organisations, including governments, want to build infrastructure and digital services in a modular format, so each building block can be reused and upgraded constantly.
This way, these digital services can be launched fast and don’t become obsolete by the time they are ready. Since they are constantly iterated, they also don’t end up outdated as technologies improve over time.
One look at the ERP 2.0 unit that drivers are being made to install now tells you it is built the old way.
For one, it still uses a stored-value card to pay for road toll. Today, you can already do so with an automated payment service each time you drive through a gantry.
In the same way, the screen that comes with this new ERP 2.0 unit reminds you of those GPS devices people used to paste on their windscreen years ago.
Why are they obsolete now? That’s because cars now have huge screens and all these navigation and other services built into their consoles. People can also connect up their phones, which have the most advanced, feature-rich apps.
At a time when the Singapore government as a whole is embracing the public cloud and AI technologies, it is a surprise to hear the LTA justifying why its project has to be so “bespoke” and custom-made.
It has chosen not to use a common smartphone system because of the trouble with the different phone models and operating systems, for example. Plus, it needs to ensure a mobile app is functioning and has a cellphone connection, it says.
Really? Does the LTA not know, for example, that you can identify yourself digitally with your Singpass app to cast a vote in an election? Plus, carry out all manners of transactions with the government and also transfer lots of money from a bank account?
If citizens have been told it is okay to trust the phone as a wallet and personal identifier, why do they need a whole separate system just to pay road toll?
The only good thing about this ERP 2.0 episode is that it’s a valuable lesson on how not to build massive technology projects that end up outdated by the time they are finally ready.
Back in 2020, then-Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung also acknowledged in a Facebook post that the way the ERP 2.0 system was developed had to be improved.
Unfortunately, by then, the government had already commissioned the S$556 million project and changes in design would affect the contract.
So, now, it has to be rolled out, even if it inconveniences citizens who don’t want it in their cars and when distance-based pricing isn’t in the plans.
Tellingly, the LTA will even give you the screen if you opt out of it. You can only swallow it as another sunk cost in the world’s most expensive place to own a car.