What is this box, card reader in my Japanese import car?

I see this asked really often.  Someone finds some sort of card reader device in their new Japanese import car and wants to know what it does.  A completely understandable enquiry, which I’ll answer here.

What does this box look like?

The picture below shows the type of box/device we’re talking about.  About the size of a cassette tape box (if you’re old enough to remember such things!) with a credit card sized slot and a couple of buttons.  It is usually wired in to the car.  In this case the box has been installed out of sight in one of the storage areas to the right of the steering wheel.  Some cars are less fortunate and are adorned with sticky velcro to secure the box to the dashboard.
Picture of an electronic toll collection system box

So what is it?

This is an electronic toll collection system / box / device.  Some cars have them built in, but most have them added afterwards.   The second picture shows the factory fitted ETC card slot on a Toyota Alphard.  The first picture is from the same car, so the owner obviously decided they’d prefer to use a separate device.
Picture of an electronic toll collection card slot in a Toyota Alphard

Why do so many cars have an ETC box?

For those who drive on toll roads in Japan (of which there are many) on a regular basis, this little box can save a lot of time and in some cases money too.

Essentially it allows the driver to pass through the toll gate without stopping and the inevitable associated fumbling around for change.  It is still required that they slow down, but there is no need to stop.  The toll required is deducted automatically from the driver’s ETC card, which is actually a specific type of credit card for the purpose of paying tolls.

Can the ETC box be removed?

In general these ETC boxes can be removed with no ill effects on the car.  Get someone competent to do this if you’re not sure what you’re doing.  There will be a live 12v feed to the device which will need to be removed or isolated correctly to avoid future problems.  Don’t just chop all the wires to the device!

Now you know about the electronic toll collection system!

I hope this has helped you understand this little black box that is fitted to many cars imported from Japan.

If you’ve got a question about ETC, or about any other electronic widgets you’ve found in your imported car, feel free to post your question below.

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