Making Radio Waves in Motor Fueling

Audio version
Posted / Last update: 01-07-1997
Publication: Petroleum Equipment & Technology Archive
Issued: July 1997
Author: d'Hont Susy, Ollivier Mike

RFID speedpass

Mobil’s new Speedpass system brings refueling one giant step closer to total automation through Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology developed by Texas Instruments (TI). TI strategic managers Susy d’Hont and Mike Ollivier explain how it works.

1997 will be remembered in the retail fueling industry as the year that a unique automatic payment system was launched thanks to a small radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that attaches to a keyring or to a vehicle. After three years of development and a successful launch earlier this year, more than a million Mobil customers and some 2,500 stations have clearly shown the value of RFID. This article will explain how this newest technology works.

Around for more than a decade, RFID has a host of applications—from automotive security and personnel access to electronic highway tolling. Even the security system for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games used RFID technology. All of these applications offer new and convenient ways for people to interact with automated systems.

In theory, RFID makes sense. It eliminates the need to manually swipe a credit card at the pump, thus saving the customer time and making the transaction safer and more convenient. However, applying RFID in a retail fuel setting has until recently been a challenge for most RFID systems and developers because of interference from the outdoor equipment at a retail fueling station; the need to read multiple tags in defined and discrete read zones; possible sources of electronic noise interference; and the requirement for an immediate and secured transaction. (A read zone is the broadcast area in which the reader unit’s interrogation-signal is received, or the electromagnetic field generated.)   

In the spring of 1994, Texas Instruments (TI) began working with the Wayne Division of Dresser Industries to create the first retail refueling RFID solution. It was successfully implemented by Mobil as “Speedpass” and attracted the interest of other key players in the petroleum industry. This first-of-its-kind solution is based on TI’s TIRIS™ technology.

The practical application of Radio Frequency Identification Technology in retail fueling.

Mapping out the signals
While the customer’s interaction with RFID is simple, the technology behind new refueling applications is actually a sophisticated blend of radio frequency technology and advanced systems integration.

The RFID system begins with a transponder, or tag, that contains a secure and unique ID code. The code is programmed into the tag and registered to an individual customer, who can link the code to a credit card account of choice. When passed near a reader unit housed within the dispenser, the tag is powered by radio frequency interrogation signals emanating from that reader. This prompts the tag to transmit its ID code to the reader, which then interfaces with a central host computer for authorization, via a local point-of-sale terminal.

TIRIS retail refueling transponders are available in two forms: a keyring tag and the industry’s only vehicle tag. The keyring tag is a hand-held device that is placed directly in front of a dispenser read-point panel. The vehicle tag, mounted unobtrusively on the rear window, automatically initiates refueling authorization as the vehicle approaches the dispenser.

Every transponder holds two main components: an antenna to communicate radio signals between the tag and the reader; and an integrated circuit to store the unique ID code and perform various radio frequency functions. Transponders can differ in their power source. Some are battery-free, such as the keyring tag, drawing their power from an internal capacitor that collects and stores RF energy issued by a reader unit. Conversely, there are battery-powered transponders, such as the vehicle tag. The battery provides for an extended read range and more powerful signal strength. (A read range refers to the distance tag and reader can be from one another without compromising communication.)   

Transponders can be either Read Only (RO), with a unique factory-programmed code, or Read/Write (R/W), allowing users to reprogram codes many times. Although TIRIS offers both versions, a Read Only tag is used in this application for three reasons:

• There is on-line access to the host computer available through the local POS system so that important data can be held securely in a central location.
• Actual credit card data is never transmitted.
• Cash values associated with a tag are not lost if the device is misplaced.

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