And the winner is…MIFARE Plus!

Last week, WMATA released a request for proposals which revealed publicly that the next-generation SmarTrip card will be based on the MIFARE Plus chip. This is a not entirely unexpected decision, and one that makes good technical sense. There really aren’t many choices here; MIFARE chips are among the most widely deployed (with billions in circulation). The MIFARE Classic, though, has security problems, and the MIFARE DESFire, long the smartcard of choice for high-security applications, is somewhat expensive for public transport applications, and certain versions have recently succumbed to security problems of their own. That leaves the MIFARE Plus, an inexpensive chip with AES encryption on-board which is just right for this application.

It’s important to point out that this procurement has very little to do with the ongoing procurement process for the New Electronic Payments Program, WMATA’s open payment initiative. The purpose of this procurement is instead to sustain WMATA’s current fare collection system, which will have to continue in operation, in some capacity, for several more years, until the NEPP has been advanced to the point that the legacy system can be decommissioned.

These cards will be outwardly identical to the SmarTrip and CharmCard cards in circulation today. They will, however, have one substantial advantage over their predecessors: as ISO 14443-compliant cards, they’ll be able to be read with commodity hardware, instead of requiring the Cubic-proprietary Tri-Reader. This will make migrating away from WMATA’s existing fare collection system easier; as long as the future system can read the serial number off of an ISO 14443 card (which is a basic requirement of the procurement), it’ll be able to interoperate with these cards.

There’s a chance we’ll see something new, too: the RFP indicates that WMATA is “open to proposals to provide fare media in forms other than the standard ISO card shape, such as mini cards, fobs, or stickers”. Personally, I like my ISO 7810-size card just fine (and eagerly await the day these new SmarTrip cards hit the streets), but I get that fobs and such are popular with some consumers.

There’s another twist in the RFP; WMATA is also seeking proposals for the operation of a retail distribution network to offer “additional options for card sales, such as pre-loaded individual cards with radio frequency shield packaging, and additional purchase options for customers, such as retail displays and un-manned vending machines”. As WMATA admits in the RFP, the current SmarTrip retail network leaves something to be desired. From anecdotal reports, the CVS and Giant Food locations which sell SmarTrip cards are not always reliable. That said, in the future we may see an expanded SmarTrip sales network, possibly including unmanned locations “available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”.

I certainly hope that the release of this RFP will bring a close to the “running out of SmarTrip cards” panic which started last summer. I still, from time to time, get hits on this site from search queries like “smartrip out of business”. The SmarTrip card is not going away, period. It’s going to be around for many years to come, regardless of what happens with the NEPP procurement.