ETC devices shift gears with wider services

Drivers are increasingly able to use the ETC devices in their cars to pay for more than just expressway tolls. They can now use the electronic toll collection system to park or fill up the gas tank--and will soon even be able to pay for a burger.
At Mosaic Mall Yokohama Kohoku in Tsuzuki Ward, a toll gate rises automatically when cars outfitted with an ETC device approach it. The drivers passed through the gate without having to dig through their pockets for cash as their new ETC devices--which offer more than the standard function--had been preregistered.

At the 1,100-car parking lot, such drivers do not even have to keep their parking tickets, and they are eligible for up to five hours' free parking, depending on how much they spent at the mall.

It has been about a year since the mall introduced the system. Of the about 4,500 patrons it sees each day, as few as 70 have registered multifunction ETC devices. However, a mall spokesman said the system was becoming increasingly popular among its clientele.

"Customers say the system is quite convenient and easy to use," said an executive from Mitsubishi Corp.'s intelligent transport systems (ITS) department.

Akihabara UDX, a complex that opened near JR Akihabara Station last month, also uses the service, as does Yamashita Park, a sightseeing spot in Yokohama. On April 24, Marunouchi Oazo, near JR Tokyo Station, will start the same service.

The electronic payment system may soon be available at gas stations, too. Though only a handful of service stations, including those affiliated with Idemitsu Kosan Co. are currently offering this service on a trial basis, there are expectations that customers with ETC devices can purchase gas at discounted prices and other privileges offered through gasoline company-issued credit cards. Under the system, attendants will be notified when a car registered with their ETC service arrives, so they may prepare to provide other services.

At some fast-food franchises, customers registered as ETC users are automatically entered to win a prize when they enter the parking lot or use the drive-thru. These restaurants also are preparing to introduce automatic payment through ETC.

However, these services are not available through the standard ETC devices used to access expressways. For these services, it is necessary to have a multifunction ETC--many of which retail for 19,800 yen. According to the Construction and Transport Ministry, only about 5,000 multifunction ETC devices are currently in use, a mere drop in the bucket compared with the conventional ETC device, of which 11.6 million have been sold.

These services are expected to become available at a growing number of facilities, and many people likely will purchase the device when they buy a new car.

Fuji Chimera Research Institute, Inc., a private research firm, predicts the multifunctional ETC devices will become commonplace in 2008 and the ETC market will expand to 56 billion yen in 2012, up from only 100 million yen last year.

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