Why are so many US tech-based services so crappy?

Dare to use a toll road or cross a bridge in a rental car in California or Illinois, and you are on the highway to hell

While out in California this week, I drove past the many famous Silicon Valley venture capital companies headquartered along Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road and pondered one of the great mysteries of the tech world.

If the US is the centre of global tech innovation, as VCs and US tech executives tell the world, why the heck are so many US tech-based services so crappy?

To pick just one long-standing pain point, consider the punishments inflicted upon anyone having the audacity to use a US online service while not in possession of a US phone number.

Many websites, even those of big companies, won’t accept anything but a US number. No one seems to have recalled that places exist beyond the US, with other country codes and different number formats. Yet all across Europe, websites can accommodate all sorts of phone number and address systems and, therefore, a wider range of customers.


Another variation on this US phone myopia is two-factor authentication (2FA) requiring, oh no, a US mobile number for text approvals. I’m all for 2FA, but services really should offer other 2FA options or permit non-US numbers.

One US bank service I use recently introduced mandatory text-based 2FA. Because the system won’t accept anything but a US mobile number, I’m now locked out of the online banking app and cannot access my account.

The most dreadful of all my recent US experiences of public-facing technology – in a format that defeats logic and any concept of usefulness – has been the collection of road tolls, of all things.

My descent into this unnecessarily bleak toll underworld involved roads in California and Illinois. Both states have introduced car plate recognition systems for tolls. This use of technology should be beneficial to drivers, eliminating toll queues, as on Dublin’s M50. But dare to use a toll road or cross a bridge in a rental car in California or Illinois, and you are on the highway to hell.

Illinois is astonishingly bad. The M50 plate recognition system is a joyful miracle by comparison: anyone can go online within 48 hours and pay a once-off M50 toll, no account needed.

Now, enter Illinois, swaggering about oafishly and shouting “hold my beer”. Illinois, especially around Chicago, has a lot of toll roads. Car rental companies pressure customers to rent toll transponders, at around $13 (€11.85) per day, with individual tolls added on to the daily charge. You won’t be told that roads also have plate recognition, and you can go online to pay tolls. Well, in theory. In practice, the system is Kafka-esque.

On a recent trip, my brother and I discovered that although the road toll website cheerfully announces car renters can create a short-term account with a credit card (the first headache of many), submit the days driven, then have tolls charged to the account, the reality is a twisted hellscape.

First, drivers cannot backdate tolls, even though the website suggests otherwise. So, an account must be created at the time a car is rented. Then, an end date and time for payments must be added.

But no one tells you this. Off you drive, and thanks to plate recognition, tolls start to accumulate if you travel the main motorways. I was charged for a month of other people’s unpaid tolls on the car, and ended up with the monumental mess of three road toll accounts, two submitted credit cards, and several lengthy long-distance calls to Illinois from Ireland (thanks, Skype). All to pay $8 for four tolls (a rented transponder would have cost me another $78).

My brother also rented a car for the same holiday, and is still struggling to pay his own measly $8. He too got charged for the journeys of the car’s previous renters. He’s had to submit his rental agreement to the toll road authority and almost three months and many calls later, it’s still unresolved.

California is a bit better, as its plate recognition-based system does allow once-off payments. Payments must be made within 48 hours, or the invoice goes to the rental car company.

However, unlike Ireland, California doesn’t have any signs telling motorists they must pay tolls within 48 hours. Yet another incidental source of income for the car rental companies, which generally charge a “service fee” per invoiced toll, plus the toll amount. The company I used charges a $9 service charge per unpaid toll, plus the toll. Easy money for them, as how is anyone to know what they’re supposed to do to cover tolls?

Europe is supposed to be less innovative, yet has implemented many of these technologies earlier and better, to solve problems rather than create them.

How strange that California is the highway capital of the US, and the tech capital of the globe, but no one thought to design a tech-based toll system that considers visitors as well as residents. Meanwhile, Ireland has had visitor-friendly, plate recognition tolling on the M50 for over a decade. As for Illinois? How I wish I could just have queued at a toll booth.