Until recently, only a handful of small companies were interested in developing electronic toll collection systems that let motorists pay highway and bridge tolls without having to hand over money. But on Dec. 5, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. said it was working with Montreal-based Vapor Canada Inc., a maker of computerized tracking gear for the trucking and railroad industries, on a system that would let drivers pay without even stopping. Drivers will purchase a "smart card" -- a credit card with a microchip that records a monetary balance -- from the local highway authority. The card plugs into a transceiver mounted on the car's dashboard that communicates with a similar unit at the tollbooth. As cars drive by the booths, the booth's radio signals trigger the smart card's microchip to debit the appropriate toll from the driver's balance. Cards that don't have enough "money" trigger an alarm that sends the highway patrol chasing after them. To avoid that, drivers can pay to bump up the balance when it gets low or buy new cards. AT&T says the system won't be available until early next year at an undetermined price.

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