The Super Suica Touchless Connection

The recent flurry of press releases and news reports for touchless walkthrough transit gates and handsfree touchless store payments sheds considerably more light on the next generation Suica architecture and FeliCa OS. The new Suica card due in spring 2021 does not have an official name. I call it Super Suica. Here’s what has been announced so far.

Next Generation Suica “2 cards in 1” architecture, new FeliCa OS, new IC card format announced by Sony, JR East, JR East Mechatronics (JREM) in September 2018.

Handsfree touchless Mobile FeliCa payments technology based on UWB+Bluetooth on Mobile FeliCa announced by Docomo, Sony, NXP Semiconductors in December 2019. A new JR East touchless transit gate was also reported by Kyodo News around the same time and was confirmed by JR East. The new touchless payments technology uses FeliCa for transactions but uses a UWB+Bluetooth front-end instead of NFC.

No delivery date for touchless gates or touchless payments has been announced but as Junya Suzuki pointed out in his recent article, Japanese transit infrastructure investment runs in 7~8 year cycles. The Takanawa Gateway station opening and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 are the kickoff for the next transit infrastructure cycle. I see 3 basic transitions for JR East and the other major transit companies.

  • Suica transition from legacy architecture to next generation ‘2 cards in 1’ Super Suica staring in spring 2021.
  • FeliCa transition from NFC only front-end to incorporate UWB+Bluetooth radio technologies for handsfree touchless payments. News reports suggest deployment of JR East touchless walkthrough gates starting in 2023.
  • QR Code transition from legacy magnetic strip and other paper ticketing. Testing and evaluation is due to start at Takanawa Gateway station in 2020 with new Suica+QR Code dual reader transit gates.

Next generation Suica and Touchless Mobile FeliCa represent an interesting twist in that both require a new version of FeliCa. My take is that the new versions of FeliCa OS are one and the same, and that both Super Suica and Touchless incorporate UWB and Bluetooth protocols for transactions in addition to NFC-F.

Zero-sum Game Reset?
People are already complaining ‘oh no, not more JR East/FeliCa proprietary BS,’ but that snap judgement is way too early. Outside of the basic technologies we don’t know what standards are involved for handsfree touchless payments, but we do know that NXP is partnering with Docomo and Sony on the effort. That means MIFARE is already working on it too. JR East announced at the 2016 Tokyo NFC Forum conference that they are dedicated to working for open compatible transit payments (i.e. open ticketing between transit operators, not EMV).

Let’s take JR East at their word and assume that there is just one flavor of UWB+Bluetooth touchless, that it is fast, that it is open. In this scenario the same UWB+Bluetooth touchless front-end could be used by anybody from the large established proprietary players like EMV, FeliCa and MIFARE to open transit payment associations like Calypso. I hope this is the scenario that plays out. We don’t need a repeat of the ‘let’s make NFC A-B (Philips and Motorola) an open standard and shut NFC-F (Sony) out of the game’ nonsense that didn’t help anybody except QR Code players.

The Apple angle is interesting. Global NFC support put Apple Pay ahead of the curve. Apple putting UWB into iPhone 11 this year could be another ‘get ahead of the curve’ move so that everything is ready to roll with Super Suica on iOS 15/watchOS 8 in late 2021. I doubt anybody will see it this way, but I think touchless Mobile FeliCa and JR East plans for it are one factor in Apple’s decision.

Handsfree Touchless Smartcards?
One very important question: does this stuff work on smartcards? No, so far only smartphones have been mentioned in the press releases. Indications are that Super Suica is launching with new IC smartcard issue, by necessity it will be backwards compatible with current transit card NFC infrastructure.

If JR East plans to deploy touchless gates starting in 2023, Super Suica plastic cards need to work with the new gates. It won’t make sense to users if UWB touchless is a smart device exclusive while plastic transit cards remain stuck in the NFC era. To make that happen however, a UWB transit card would need a battery à la the long rumored Apple Air Tags. If it’s going to work in the minds of transit users, all of this stuff has to work perfectly, out of the gate.