'Made in Germany' under threat

14th November 2003, Comments 0 comments

The failure to launch a new German computer-based highway toll system has raised worries that the scandal surrounding the scheme could destroy the nation's once formidable reputation for cars, trucks and road transport. Jean-Baptiste Piggin reports on the fallout for "Made in Germany".

'Made in Germany' faces challenge from the Toll Collect scandal

A German-devised computer system that was supposed to monitor every truck on 12,000 kilometres of autobahn and charge a toll has turned into a national scandal, prompting fears that Germany's worldwide reputation for fine engineering will be ruined.

The planned launch date at the end of August came and went with the operating company Toll Collect missing another launch date, 2 November. If the computers are not working after 1 January, Toll Collect must pay EUR 250,000 a day in penalties.

Truck operators are torn between delight - at several more months of free use of the autobahns - and shame that the "Made-in-Germany" devices do not work. Every truck is supposed to have an on-board unit (OBU) to clock up the average 12 euro cent per kilometre charge.

Karlheinz Schmidt, secretary of the German Trucking Federation BGL, which represents 15,000 companies, told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that only one out of every 15 OBUs installed so far did its job.

Each OBU is essentially a tiny computer. Most of the faults have been blamed on bugs, or unforeseen situations that the software has not been written to cope with.

Grumbling is a part of the German national character, and stories about malfunctioning OBUs have become the stuff of urban legend.

Driver Josef Pieroth, 57, from the western town of Bingen said a friend of a friend tried out an OBU.

"The minute he switched it on, the engine conked out," he said.

"That's impossible," retorted a spokesman for Toll Collect. "We keep hearing this story, but it is not true."

Heard the one about the OBU that works backwards?

BGL president Hermann Grewer said he understood that when a truck switched from a southbound carriageway to a northbound one to bypass roadworks, the OBU could become confused and count the kilometres down instead of up.

Toll Collect said it knew of no feature in the software to count backwards, but if it was shown an example it would check it out.

Resentment at the malfunctions has taken a dangerous turn in the past few days, with many truckers saying they will no longer cooperate in tests, because Toll Collect is not trying hard enough.

"Trucking companies have stopped installing OBUs and are no longer replacing faulty ones," warned Schmidt.

One driver was quoted telling Bild am Sonntag, "Why should we test it when the technology is still faulty. Once the system works properly, I'll try it out."

Toll Collect needs to conduct a dry run lasting several weeks with tens of thousands of trucks to iron out the bugs. The OBUs use satellite navigation to estimate a truck's position, and report this by mobile phone to a central computer.

Bank computers will remit the road tolls to Toll Collect with no human intervention. Cameras on gantries over the autobahns will photograph every truck's number plate so as to catch free riders.

Toll Collect, a joint venture between industrial group DaimlerChrysler and phone company Deutsche Telekom, tempted fate by adopting a smart-sounding English name with an unmistakeable double meaning. In German, "toll" means "mad".

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'Made in Germany' faces challenge from the Toll Collect scandal

A German-devised computer system that was supposed to monitor every truck on 12,000 kilometres of autobahn and charge a toll has turned into a national scandal, prompting fears that Germany's worldwide reputation for fine engineering will be ruined.

The planned launch date at the end of August came and went with the operating company Toll Collect missing another launch date, 2 November. If the computers are not working after 1 January, Toll Collect must pay EUR 250,000 a day in penalties.

Truck operators are torn between delight - at several more months of free use of the autobahns - and shame that the "Made-in-Germany" devices do not work. Every truck is supposed to have an on-board unit (OBU) to clock up the average 12 euro cent per kilometre charge.

Karlheinz Schmidt, secretary of the German Trucking Federation BGL, which represents 15,000 companies, told the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that only one out of every 15 OBUs installed so far did its job.

Each OBU is essentially a tiny computer. Most of the faults have been blamed on bugs, or unforeseen situations that the software has not been written to cope with.

Grumbling is a part of the German national character, and stories about malfunctioning OBUs have become the stuff of urban legend.

Driver Josef Pieroth, 57, from the western town of Bingen said a friend of a friend tried out an OBU.

"The minute he switched it on, the engine conked out," he said.

"That's impossible," retorted a spokesman for Toll Collect. "We keep hearing this story, but it is not true."

Heard the one about the OBU that works backwards?

BGL president Hermann Grewer said he understood that when a truck switched from a southbound carriageway to a northbound one to bypass roadworks, the OBU could become confused and count the kilometres down instead of up.

Toll Collect said it knew of no feature in the software to count backwards, but if it was shown an example it would check it out.

Resentment at the malfunctions has taken a dangerous turn in the past few days, with many truckers saying they will no longer cooperate in tests, because Toll Collect is not trying hard enough.

"Trucking companies have stopped installing OBUs and are no longer replacing faulty ones," warned Schmidt.

One driver was quoted telling Bild am Sonntag, "Why should we test it when the technology is still faulty. Once the system works properly, I'll try it out."

Toll Collect needs to conduct a dry run lasting several weeks with tens of thousands of trucks to iron out the bugs. The OBUs use satellite navigation to estimate a truck's position, and report this by mobile phone to a central computer.

Bank computers will remit the road tolls to Toll Collect with no human intervention. Cameras on gantries over the autobahns will photograph every truck's number plate so as to catch free riders.

Toll Collect, a joint venture between industrial group DaimlerChrysler and phone company Deutsche Telekom, tempted fate by adopting a smart-sounding English name with an unmistakeable double meaning. In German, "toll" means "mad".

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