The next-gen ERP module seems stuck in the past. This raises questions about the rollout of govt technology projects.
According to the author, smartphones are so feature-rich that they can be easily upgraded and there is no reason for cars to have an ERP unit. It should be optional.
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The transport authorities of Singapore introduced the "next generation" toll collection module last week. It is a three-piece unit that can be fitted in cars starting in mid-2021.
It seems more like a decade ago than the next generation, with a screen and antenna located near the windscreen as well as a processing device tucked away close to the seat.
The photos are enough to show that the gadget took years to make, from conception in the 2000s to its deployment now.
It took the Singapore Government just weeks to create an app and a tiny Bluetooth token that would help contract-trace millions of people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It wants motorists to use this heavy kit to track vehicles on the road. Why was this OBU not subject to public consultation?
Okay, so the Government must track cars via satellite in order to collect tolls. But why is there a road navigation service? It was requested by no one. Google Maps is now available.
On September 10, Ong Ye Kung, the new Transport Minister, took to Facebook to address public feedback.
He said, "We will need to see how we can do this better next time," in a post shared more than 200 times by his followers at the time of writing.
He explained that the Land Transport Authority was contractually bound by a system it selected in 2016 when it selected an international tender. Any changes thereafter would have an impact on the contract.
This is quite revealing, eh? Is the contract a sign that LTA employees were bound by a design that any driver could have warned them was problematic?
Apart from the obvious issues with a screen that blocks part of your windshield, you will also need cables to connect the parts of the kit within your car.
The most concerning thing about the new kit is its inability to be used, at least initially, for the task it was intended to perform.
Ong stated that distance-based charging will not be allowed because it is a "significant policy shift" that must be studied. The new kit will do the same thing as the old one, and there will still exist gantries in the town, but they will be smaller.
This sums it all.
It looks like a project that took many years to complete has lost its way.
Why is this unit being built now, four years after LTA awarded a tender of S$556 million to a consortium consisting of NCS and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engine System Asia for the development of the new ERP system?
Ong suggested that the display might be an optional component in the future. He said that smartphones could be an upgrade option in the future. He explained that it is better to have a standard-issue unit. But, why not make the whole OBU optional? Smartphone apps are now feature-rich and can be easily upgraded, making them the ideal way to launch new functions on the move.
Many cars support Apple iOS and Google Android. This allows their screens to double up as extra displays for the LTA. You don't need any extra retrofitted gear.
However, the bigger problem is how these government technology projects are conceptualized, developed, and implemented.
Cloud computing is here to stay. Iterative development, constant user feedback, and regular updates are all part of the new era. Large projects no longer need to take many years to develop and then be obsolete when they are launched.
This OBU kit was developed in the same way that GovTech created the TraceTogether app.
Although privacy concerns remain about the contact-tracing technology's use, developers have allowed people to take apart the Bluetooth device to see what it does. This is a win for trust.
The LTA stated that it would anonymize the data collected and that only vehicle-specific data would be used to pay for charges, enforcement, and payment.
It could allow for more scrutiny of the actual device, similar to what was done with the TraceTogether Bluetooth dongle.
Would you be willing to share the data that the unit collects, and for how long?
The Singapore Government has been active in setting up software stacks, or foundations, that can be used by agencies throughout the Government to create new apps, programs, and services.
This allows for faster development, weeks or months instead of years, and features such as cyber security are already in place.
This is how an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered government team created a mass temp screening device using low-cost components.
This saved thousands of dollars for organizations when people entered buildings to check their identities.
The OBU kit is a reminder of a past era in this setting. It is possible for authorities to use user feedback to make the OBU kit optional.
Ask the people behind TraceTogether if they could create a road toll app that motorists can use on their mobile devices.
It will require less technology, but more attitude change by government agencies in order to embrace change. It is truly a next-generation.