The UK Government is to unveil satellite-based 'pay-as-you-go' plans for national motor taxation this week, with a test of the technology due in five to six years, and implementation (if it goes ahead) after the next election. The planned approach seems broadly in line with the conclusions of the Department for Transport's feasibility study on road pricing, published last year, but is being touted as "revenue-neutral", i.e. the overall level of motor taxation will remain the same. Honest.
That promise flies in the face of the advice of several Labour Party think tanks, and given the likely costs of implementing the technology, may be a difficult one to keep. The Government's stated intent at the moment is to reduce congestion, but effects on traffic levels of varying charging by road, time and congestion level will be difficult to predict, and studies in the past few years have suggested that car use - and hence, congestion - will continue to climb without the discouragement of higher taxation.
The anticipated scheme would cover the whole of the UK, and would use GPS to fix the precise location of all vehicles, with cost at the moment anticipated to range from 2p a mile for deserted stretches of road to £1.30 for the busiest. In principle such a scheme could replace fuel and road tax, but a 'vanilla' implementation would obviously miss gas guzzlers, as price would be entirely distance- rather than consumption-based, so the retention of some form of vehicle-related taxation would appear necessary.
As the DfT's report anticipates, any reduction in congestion produced by a road pricing scheme need not necessarily be accompanied by an equivalent reduction in traffic levels. At least some traffic would be redirected from more expensive routes to cheaper ones, so there would be a tendency for traffic reductions on one road to go along with increases on another. This would have at least some initial unpopular side-effects outside major conurbations, as traffic switched from, say, motorways to A roads, but at least in principle these could be levelled out by price changes in the early stages of a scheme.
In major cities the effects will be far harder to control, as the density of the road grids produces very large numbers of potential rat runs. This will produce major headaches in terms of tracking the vehicles and determining charge levels, and as in some cities most of the roads that actually go anywhere directly (approximately...) are already congested, town driving could turn into a variation of whack-a-mole as people try to save money and the road pricing system tries to deal with the effects.
The Government accepts that the anticipated system can't be done with current technology, but is hopeful for the future. GPS isn't good at buildings and built up areas, so will tend to fail in many of the places most prone to congestion, and as Germany's early problems with satellite road-pricing illustrated, having differential pricing on two roads that are close together can result in vehicles being charged for the wrong road. The DfT report reckons that the European version of GPS, Galileo, will go some way towards dealing with these problems; this, however, sounds highly optimistic, particularly as the scale of the planned UK system means that we are - characteristically - heading into uncharted territory.
But we may be planning to take quite a lot of the rest of you with us. Aside from the problems of locating the vehicle properly, there are also issues with making sure it is actually telling the truth. If the owner blocks the GPS connection then as far as the system was concerned the car might as well not exist, so at this point the concept begins to move from apparent simplicity into Big Brother territory. According to the report: "We believe... that the technology needed to implement a national distance-based scheme will need generally to be fitted to vehicles during the manufacturing process, since its complexity and the potential for interference between it and other electronic components, and the need for robustness, would make retrofitment difficult and expensive."
Obviously, the device needs to be difficult to remove or subvert, and as the charging system will need to distinguish between a vehicle spending a week in an underground car park and one driving around London with a strategically positioned piece of metal foil, the device probably has to be as much about reporting the vehicle's status regularly as it is about being a charging mechanism. Having the box measure and report mileage would provide one possible mechanism for catching evaders, but if by law all vehicles in the country need to have the ability to report position and status, other uses for the system will emerge, and the national ID scheme for cars will be with us.
Some of the obvious uses were floated in the parliamentary Transport Committee's report on The Car of the Future last year. Evidence from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), for example, suggested biometric security for cars (bad idea) and remote disabling of the vehicle. Cars could also report their owners for speeding, and cars without MoT, tax (assuming conventional tax won't be entirely abolished) or insurance could also give themselves up.
You can envisage these in-car boxes getting fiendishly complex and expensive as the system designers try to lock out abuse and the custodians of sundry Government databases try to get a slice, but that doesn't necessarily mean the manufacturers will politely tell the UK Government to get lost. Getting them to incorporate the boxes at manufacturing stage, says the report, "will need a Vehicle Directive from the EU. The UK Government could take a lead in the European Union, which is the appropriate body for these matters, if it wished to ensure that progress towards national road pricing was maintained, without prejudicing the eventual decision as to whether or not to implement it."
Kind of depends what you mean by "prejudicing", that. If the EU did issue a Vehicle Directive requiring the inclusion of in-car monitoring systems then it would do so to cover the whole EU, not just the UK, and it would also roadmap the intended uses for this box. Individual states could use it to facilitate road pricing systems, but the point as far as Brussels was concerned would be to deal with policing, security and safety issues.
So if it happens (and it's difficult to see how the UK plans could work without a factory-fitted tamper-proof box), then it will quite possibly have a Europe-wide vehicle ID scheme to back it. Yum. ®