Another Victory for Automation

Remember those halcyon days in shops when the shop keeper would look at your item, know the price of it and ring that price straight into the till/cash register? That system was very quick and efficient for the paying customer. What happened? Along came computer geniuses armed with bar codes and automated stock tracking and re-ordering systems. (Mea culpa, except for the genius bit.) Now what happens? Either :

  1. Spotty oik at the checkout passes your pre-packaged item over a bar code scanner but the bar code label is creased or badly printed.
  2. The scanner fails to beep its recognition of your item.
  3. Spotty oik tries again … no beep … and again … still no beep.
  4. There follows a laborious process of manually keying in the 12 or so digit numerical equivalent of the item’s unreadable bar code. 
  5. Finally the bloody computer system recognizes your item and adds the appropriate amount to your bill.


  1. You’ve inadvertently picked up one of the items on the shelf that hasn’t actually been bar coded and spotty oik now has to call for someone in authority to go and retrieve another identical item with the bar code.
  2. Wait two minutes. The queue [line, in Amerispeak] is getting antsy behind you.
  3. Go to #1 above.

Admittedly this doesn’t happen with every item but it is certainly not an infrequent occurrence, is it? Is this quick and efficient for the customer? No, of course not. This whole system is designed to help the shop/store in streamlining its stock control and re-ordering. It is not designed to help the paying customer.

France is now inventing something equivalent in regard to its autoroute tolls. When you enter an autoroute section which is péage [carries a toll], you take a ticket. When you leave the autoroute, you are charged according to how far you have travelled. Simples! Well, it was. Up until recently there was a warm body, sometimes smiling and cheery, at the exit point. You handed them your ticket and a price appeared. Some people, notably the French, seem to insist on juggling with cash but the warm body made it all pretty quick and easy. Sensible people handed over a credit card along with the ticket and you were on your way in no time flat.

[Aside: You never had to sign a credit card chit or enter a PIN at an autoroute toll booth. How’d that work?]

Enter: the ugly face of automation once again. Many of the autoroute toll booths are having automated machinery installed. The warm body, sometimes smiling and cheery, at the autoroute exit point is being replaced by an impersonal machine/computer system. Here’s how it works:

  1. Several cars in front of you, a driver inserts the ticket into the machine the wrong way round. The machine fails to read the magnetically encoded data and spits the ticket back out.
  2. The driver re-inserts the ticket the right way round.
  3. A price appears.
  4. Being French, the driver shuns the use of credit cards and begins fumbling for cash. (The price is such that we are generally talking paper money here, BTW.)
  5. The machine miraculously accepts the driver’s creased and soiled Euros and discharges the correct change (coins) into a tray.
  6. The driver starts scooping out his/her change and insists on storing it in his/her purse before continuing.
  7. The driver then fumbles a scooping motion and drops his/her remaining coins on the ground in between the car and the fancy toll machine.
  8. The bottom of the sun’s disc gracefully touches the horizon.


  1. You’ve stored your autoroute ticket next to your bankers card in your wallet/purse and the magnetic strip is now knackered. When you insert the ticket, even if your bright enough to get it the correct way round, it can’t be read.
  2. The ticket is spat back out and you have to press the “warm body for assistance” button. (Wait one minute.)
  3. Now you are instructed to read some of the digits from your ticket.
  4. A price appears.
  5. Go to #3 above.

Meanwhile, another six vehicles have formed a queue [line, in Amerispeak] behind you.

This marvellous new system is, once again, several times slower than the original, even when things go smoothly. Trust me, we’ve tried both many times. On busy autoroute toll booths, the queues [lines, in Amerispeak – get it?] are noticeably longer.

Is this new system better for the paying customer? No, of course it isn’t. This system does absolutely nothing for the paying (and paying dearly) customer. This system is, of course, designed entirely for the autoroute companies who can now make redundant a good percentage of their employees.

Unemployment in France is already high enough.

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Posted in 2011 Autumn Tagged with: ,

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