Transit Gate Evolution: why tap speed matters

As COVID restrictions are eased and the world slowly goes back to work, school and hopefully slightly more normal life, avoiding crowds will be key in keeping COVID from becoming resurgent in the months ahead.

For commuters in Japanese metro areas avoiding crowds is no easy matter. Fortunately the Japanese transit gate infrastructure is a great help. FeliCa based IC transit cards (Suica, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) with fast transaction speeds combined with open gate flap design maximizes people flow: people walk through gates at normal pace. This is very important for Japanese stations that have to make do with large crowds in limited spaces and smaller gate areas.

It’s wrong however, to think that this only applies to Japan. The benefits of fast tap speed combined with intelligent transit gate design are relevant everywhere and very necessary in this day and age: fast gate tap speed is essential in keeping gate crowding at a minimum. It makes things safer not only for train operation, but also addresses crowd control health concerns in the COVID era.

A reader sent a link to a good discussion of NFC protocols and gate tap speeds that was apparently deleted when YouTube comments were turned off. I retyped the comment below from a screenshot with some light editing for clarity. If I find the author I’ll link to the original. The videos have already appeared in other posts but it’s good have them in one place. A previous installment already covered QR transit code gate issues, this post will focus on NFC.


While transit gates and NFC processors are found worldwide, what makes the Japanese gates different from the rest of the world is they don’t use global standard ISO 14443 (never mind Type A which uses Miller bit coding, the least efficient bit coding method) protocol which is common in many transit and bank cards issued worldwide.

The tap time with ISO 14443 Type A (née Philips) and B (née Motorola) varies greatly: from 200 to 500 milliseconds (ms) with 200 ms only achievable with Type B/Calypso. But it never reaches the short as 100 ms which is only achieved with Felica developed by Sony, also designated NFC-F and NFC Tag Type 3 by the NFC Forum and compatible with ISO 18092 which is commonly found in smartphones and NFC wearables since 2013. In this following video passengers maintain their walking pace but never overshoot and trigger a gate closure nor slow down not even a bit:

It may seem like a minor difference but due to the high volume of passengers per gate and to reduce gate maintenance requirements, tap times really matter.

Companies such as JR East have specified tap time of 200 ms but Suica is actually faster and this allows real life speed tolerances: some passengers tap faster than others due to walking pace, the higher speed tolerances are only possible with the 100 ms tap time of FeliCa. A comparison example of large crowds at gates in Malaysia and Japan below:

Open Loop NFC ticketing in its current form is based on EMVCo Contactless specifications adopted in contactless bank cards issued worldwide including China UnionPay QuickPass which is PBOC derived from the EMVCo Contactless spec. All of these use ISO 14443 Type A at 106 kbps only for 500 ms tap time, which is adopted in cities worldwide such as London, New York, Moscow and Rio de Janeiro where normal walking speed is never supported.

But as seen here, transit cards in Japan such as Suica, PASMO and ICOCA are supported for ultra hight speed and precise account verification and fare processing. Transit cards use offline Stored Fare (SF) which includes the amount of funds stored in the card’s IC smart chip data storage, NOT backend on a server like a bank card, and stored commuter passes. Here are walk flow comparisons for Tokyo and London, and MTA OMNY Open Loop performance:

Japanese IT journalist Junya Suzuki tests OMNY transit gate speed…
and reliability

One hopes the NFC Forum works to increase NFC speeds and global specifications to “improve the overall user experience for NFC users.” We shall see.

With the exception of any Apple Pay news from WWDC20, this will be my last big post for a while. Stay healthy, stay safe and have a great summer.

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Garmin Pay Suica aka Google Pay on iOS

Garmin Pay Suica went live May 21, effectively breaking the 4 year Apple Watch/Apple Pay Suica monopoly. As any Apple Watch user in Tokyo will tell you, Apple Pay Suica is the killer Apple Watch app. The real secret of course is Express Transit payments. Even now I get the occasional oh and ah from store staff when I hold Apple Watch up to the reader. They really appreciate the speed and social distance. So do I.

Since Garmin only does smartwatches, there are inherent limitations and big differences from Apple Pay Suica: (1) there is no way to transfer a plastic Suica to Gamin Pay, users have to create an account and a new virtual Garmin Pay Suica card, (2) Garmin Pay Suica does not support Suica Commuter Passes, (3) Garmin Pay Suica can only be recharged with Google Pay, (4) Garmin Pay Suica is limited to Japanese Garmin models, it is not global NFC like iPhone and Apple Watch.

Outside of that Garmin Pay Suica is a regular Suica with ‘Rapid Pass’ instead of Express Transit, different name, same thing. It can be registered for SmartEX and Ekinet Shinkansen eTicket travel. iOS users setup and recharge via the Garmin Connect Mobile app.

Garmin Pay Suica limitations limit its appeal for iPhone users who already have the full range of Mobile Suica service on Apple Watch. It’s a boon for Android users who have lusted after a Suica smartwatch. It very weird that it has taken 4 years for Android based device makers to even attempt matching the killer combo of Apple Watch and Apple Pay Suica. I hope Garmin works to improve the service and remove the limitations. Android users would really appreciate having the full Mobile Suica experience on a smartwatch.

UPDATE: there’s some gray area whether all Asian models support Suica or just the devices sold in Japan. I’ll update any discoveries here. Other limitations like Suica Commuter passes are also interesting and suspect they shed some light on the Google Pay~Osaifu Keitai relationship. In many ways Google Pay Suica is a UI skin on top of the Osaifu Keitai stack. In the case of Garmin Pay, no Osaifu Keitai stack means no Commuter Pass support even though it depends on Google Pay for recharge.

UPDATE: All APAC models support Suica

Apple Pay Suica Commuter Pass Refunds

With a state of emergency declared for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka areas until May 6, people will be working from home as much as possible until then. Most companies already shifted to telework mode weeks ago. There are far fewer people commuting to work and schools are out. There is much less need for commuter passes during what is usually a peak commuter pass purchase season for school and work commuting. The situation is so unprecedented that JR East pushed out a special Mobile Suica system notice yesterday for canceling a Mobile Suica commuter pass (commute plan) and getting a refund. The Mobile Suica support page only covers the process in Japanese, here it is in English. All other Apple Pay Suica Commute Plans options are covered in the guide.

Cancel and Refund Apple Pay Suica Commute Plan
To cancel your commute plan and get a refund before the expiration date, you must have a Mobile Suica account and Suica App. Refund of a current plan costs an upfront ¥220 processing fee. The refund amount is calculated on how many valid days are left before expiration. If too close to the expiration date you won’t get a refund. Follow the screenshots below for a refund. Note that refunds are made back your to Apple Pay credit/debit card used to purchase the commute plan. The commute plan is invalidated immediately but you can still use it as a regular Suica for purchases and transit. You can also purchase a new commute plan for the Suica at any time with Suica App.

iOS 14 Apple Pay: going the distance with Ultra Wideband Touchless and QR (Updated)

It’s that time of year again to look into the WWDC crystal ball and see what changes might be in store for Apple Pay. 2019 was an exciting year with the important Core NFC Read-Write additions for ISO 7816, ISO 15693, FeliCa, and MIFARE tags. Since then we’ve seen iOS apps add support for contactless passports, drivers licenses, retail and manufacturer vicinity NFC tags, transit ticketing, badging, and more. Some expectations ended up on the cutting room floor. The NFC tag Apple Pay feature that Jennifer Bailey showed back in May 2019 has yet to appear. Apple Pay Ventra and Octopus transit services slated for 2019 and iOS 13 failed to launch. Apple Pay Octopus launched June 2, Apple Pay Ventra has yet to appear.

Predicting anything in 2020 is risky business because of COVID. iPhone 12 might be delayed, iOS 14 might be delayed, features brought forward, pushed back…all plans are up in the air. Some developments are clear, but timing is opaque. What follows is based on: (1) NTT Docomo announcement of Ultra Wideband (UWB) ‘Touchless’ Mobile FeliCa additions and JR East developing UWB Touchless transit gates, (2) CarKey and the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec, and (3) Mac 9to5 reports of AliPay coming to iOS 14 Apple Pay.

Going the distance with Ultra Wideband
The NFC standard has been around a long time, long before smartphones, conceived when everything was built around close proximity read write physical IC cards. The standards have served us very well. So why are NTT Docomo and Sony (Mobile FeliCa) and NXP (MIFARE) adding Ultra Wideband + Bluetooth into the mix?

UWB + Bluetooth delivers Touchless: a hands-free keep-smartphone-in-pocket experience for unlocking a car door, walking through a transit gate or paying for takeout while sitting in the drive thru. It’s the same combo that powers Apple AirTags. UWB Touchless delivers distance with accuracy doing away with “you’re holding it wrong” close proximity hit areas necessary when using NFC. With Touchless your iPhone is essentially a big AirTag to the reader,

For Apple Pay Wallet cards it means hands free Express Card door access, Suica Express transit gate access and payments that ‘just work’ by walking up to a scan area or car. As Junya Suzuki pointed out recently, UWB Touchless is passive vs. the active NFC ‘touch to the reader’ gesture, as such it will live on smartphones and not on plastic cards. Those will remain limited to NFC which does not require a battery.

Secure Element evolution and digital key sharing
The addition of UWB Touchless however means that the Secure Element, where transaction keys are kept and applets perform their magic, has to change and evolve. Up until now the Secure Element worked hand in glove with the NFC controller to make sure communications between the reader are secure and encrypted. For this reason an embedded Secure Element (eSE) usually resides on the NFC controller chip.

Apple chose to put a Global Platform certified Apple Pay eSE in their own A/S series chips. The arrangement gives Apple more control and flexibility, such as the ability to update Secure Element applets and implement features like global NFC. The addition of UWB Touchless in FeliCa and MIFARE means both smartphone and readers need new hardware and software. Apple already has UWB in the U1 chip on iPhone 11. Mobile FeliCa software support could be coming with the next generation ‘Super Suica’ release in the spring of 2021 that requires an updated FeliCa OS.

Recent screen images of a CarKey card in Wallet…with Express Mode can we call it Suicar?

The arrival of UWB Touchless signals another change in the Secure Element as shown in middle CarKey screen image: digital key sharing via the cloud where the master key on the smartphone devices ‘blesses’ and revokes shared keys. Mobile FeliCa Digital key sharing with FeliCa cards and devices was demonstrated at the Docomo Open House in January, also outlined in the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCR) Digital Key White Paper. An interesting aspect of the CCR Digital Key architecture is the platform neutrality, any Secure Element provider (FeliCa, MIFARE, etc.) can plug into it. Calypso could join the party but I don’t see EMV moving to add UWB Touchless because it requires a battery. EMV will probably stick with battery free NFC and plastic cards.

Diagram from Car Connectivity Consortium (CCR) Digital Key White Paper

QR Code Payment Cards
There is another possible eSE transition for Apple Pay. If the 9to5 Mac AliPay for Apple Pay iOS 14 rumor is true, it represents a huge change for Apple Pay which has strictly limited payment transactions to NFC. The whole identity of Apple Pay is NFC payment cards vs. Wallet which can hold both cards (NFC) and passes (NFC or QR/Barcodes).

A few weeks ago a reader asked for some thoughts regarding the AliPay on iOS 14 Apple Pay rumor with a link to some screen/mockup images on the LIHKG site. Before getting to that it’s helpful to review some key Apple Pay Wallet features for payment cards:

  • Direct side button Wallet activation with automatic Face/Touch ID authentication and payment at the reader.
  • Device transactions handled by the eSE without a network connection.
  • Ability to set a default main card for Apple Pay use.

The images suggest a scenario for implementing AliPay in iOS 14 Apple Pay:

  • AliPay has a PassKit API method to add a ‘QR Card’ to Wallet.
  • Apple Pay Wallet QR Card set as the main card is directly activated with a button double-click for Face or a Touch ID authentication and dynamic QR Code payment generation in Apple Pay.
  • Direct static QR Code reads activate Apple Pay AliPay payment.

If Apple is adding AliPay to the ranks of top tier Wallet payment cards, they have to provide a way in. The new “PKSecureElementPass” PassKit framework addition in iOS 13.4 could be just that. Instead of PassKit NFC Certificates, the additions suggest a Secure Element Pass/certificate. Secure Element Certificates instead of NFC Certificates, or better yet completely decouple the Secure Element from NFC so that there are 2 kinds of certificates: a Secure Element Pass for Secure Element transactions, and a NFC Certificate ‘lite’ for non-Secure Element NFC use such as VAS passes which pull everything off a JSON server. In the long run Apple needs to provide finer definitions and controls for NFC and UWB access instead of one black box that PassKit NFC Certificates have been up to now.

One possible scenario for PassKit NFC Certificate evolution

The burning question here is: have Apple and AliPay developed Secure Element technology and Java Card applets for encrypted transactions that work without network connections? If so QR Wallet payment ‘cards’ are possible. Direct Apple Pay Wallet QR integration with would open up things for 3rd party (non bank) payment players. QR integration with separate access controls for the Secure Element and NFC/UWB hardware frontend might also help Apple skirt NFC monopoly allegations that got Apple Pay in trouble in Europe.

Dual Mode and flexible front ends
The addition of QR and UWB with NFC for payments opens up a long term possibility suggested by Toyota Wallet. The current app lets the user attach a QR code app payment method and/or a NFC Wallet payment method to an account. It’s intriguing but clunky. Wallet QR Payment support would allow Toyota Wallet to move the entire payment front end to Wallet and let the user choose to add one or both.

It’s the latter that interests me most. Instead of having separate NFC and QR payment ‘cards’ from the same issuer for the same account, I’d much rather have one adaptive Wallet card that smartly uses the appropriate protocol, QR, NFC, UWB for the payment at hand.

Ultimately I don’t believe that payment players need or want to anchor their services to specific technologies like QR or even NFC. AliPay may have needed QR to start their payment business empire, why not offer NFC and UWB if it’s there as a front end choice? It’s all virtual.

Capable, flexible, smart. This is what digital wallets should do, things that plastic can never achieve. Let’s hope Apple Pay Wallet makes it there someday, and that payment and transit providers are up to the mix and match challenge in the Touchless era.


WWDC20 UPDATE

CarKey
Apple announced CarKey, digital car keys and Ultra Wideband Touchless in the WWDC20 Keynote and accompanying press release:

Digital car keys give users a secure way to use iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock and start their car. Digital car keys can be easily shared using Messages, or disabled through iCloud if a device is lost, and are available starting this year through NFC. Apple also unveiled the next generation of digital car keys based on Ultra Wideband technology for spatial awareness delivered through the U1 chip, which will allow users to unlock future car models without removing their iPhone from their pocket or bag, and will become available next year.

Apple Newsroom

More details were revealed the CarKey session:

One thing the CarKey session made clear is that Secure Element ‘radio technologies’ are evolving beyond NFC. Another interesting aspect of CarKey is the device requirement: iPhone XR/XS or later, Apple Watch Series 5 or later.

A12 devices and later makes perfect sense because they all support Express Cards with power reserve. Apple Watch does not support this feature but the Series 5 and later requirement suggests the S series chip is getting very close and likely involves Secure Element digital key sharing. We may see Express Cards with power reserve arrive with Apple Watch Series 6.

App Clips
App Clips finally unleash the power of background NFC tag reading and is the other big Apple Pay development announced at WWDC20. This is what Jennifer Bailey talked about last year just before WWDC19 but it took another year to come together.

App Clips puts NFC tags on equal footing with QR Codes for the first time with the added edge of the ‘when the screen is on’ background tag sheet pop-ups. This will be huge. See the separate post for details.


iOS 14 Apple Pay AliPay Update
AliPay QR Code support was not mentioned in the keynote but it appears that iOS 14 Apple Pay QR Payments will be coming after all: MacRumors reports code references in iOS 14 beta 2. An AliPay Wallet addition is strongly suggested by a iOS 14 PassKit alipay payment network reference. There are other new PassKit framework additions that also suggest better barcode handling. We’ll likely get an official announcement at the iPhone 12 Event with a service launch ‘coming later this year/early next year’, and only for mainland China AliPay account holders, not international users.

Special Mobile Suica Maintenance Notice

JR East issued a Mobile Suica system maintenance notice, the downtime will run longer than usual: all services will be offline from midnight to 6:30 am March 21 JST. This includes Apple Pay Suica recharge so be sure to recharge before then, or use cash recharge at the nearest convenience store.

The special maintenance is related to the recent Shinkansen eTicket service launch and preparation for an updated Eki-net App that will eventually support it.