The government's "Managed Motorway" re-badged road-pricing scheme seems to be taking on more shape, with reports indicating that technical elements of it will commence testing from 2010.
The Telegraph says this morning that contracts are close to being signed for trials of "Spy in the Sky" car-tracking equipment and associated admin infrastructure, able to track a car's movements and automatically deliver an appropriate road-usage bill to the owner.
"It seems that Labour's unpopular plans for a national road pricing scheme are alive and well," the Tories' Theresa Villiers told the Telegraph.
"They are determined to press ahead with their untried and untested spy-in-the-sky national project even though it looks like an IT disaster waiting to happen."
The government has made every effort to downplay its Road Pricing 2.0 plans, burying the details behind talk of hard-shoulder driving and variable-speed-limit traffic management. However, Ruth Kelly and her team at the Department for Transport have openly admitted that they want to use toll lanes on the motorways, and that some kind of e-tracking would be necessary. Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR), used in most current traffic-control systems - for instance the London Congestion Charge zone - is easily beaten by the use of false plates carrying someone else's number*.
According to the Telegraph's sources, the 2010 trials will open to volunteer beta-testers after a few months, and will mostly involve "a satellite tracking a vehicle's movements" for the purpose of billing.
In fact, Ms Villiers' and the Telegraph's descriptions notwithstanding, the satellites involved will be simple timing-and-navigation transmitter birds, not surveillance ones. The machinery which will know where the vehicle is will be the the box in the car, not the one in space. But the box in the car will have to let the billing infrastructure know where the car has been, which will create a database of locations and times - perhaps updated in close to real-time. Such a database is always highly desirable to police and security officials, and it is likely to be only a matter of time before they get routine, automated access to it - as has already happened with the Congestion Charge. The same would be true of any system using electronic tags read by roadside equipment.
With some in the government pushing for electronic surveillance and intercept data to be made more widely available, this sort of thing understandably upsets privacy advocates and libertarians, as well as increasingly cash-strapped motorists.
"We have been absolutely clear that any proposal for national road pricing would need to address the legitimate concerns people have," the DfT told the Telegraph.
"We're a very long way from that which is why our priority now and over the next decade is on tackling congestion where it is experienced most - in our cities and on our motorways."
Given the huge groundswell of opposition which met the initial national road-pricing proposals, and their subsequent hasty kicking into touch, a truly comprehensive charging regime may never appear. The DfT is openly considering nothing more than toll lanes for the moment, and that may well be as far as charging goes. Some lanes of the motorways at least seem likely to remain free to use, though these lanes may be rather crowded.
What the government aren't admitting is that it will be very difficult to keep the e-tagging or GPS spy-in-cab kit on an optional basis if the Managed Motorway plans go nationwide. The free motorway lanes will still need automatically-enforceable lowered speed limits at peak times, and there will also be the issue of freeloaders without payment trackers trying to use the pay lanes. In the long term ANPR is busted as an enforcement method, as the government acknowledges. Managed Motorway as a whole will offer greater incentives to commit vehicle-ID fraud, and such a setup will need vehicle-ID stronger than numberplates for everyone - not just for those wanting to use the pay lanes.
So there may not be secret plans for compulsory road-pricing; but the existing plans are, in effect, plans for compulsory national vehicle-tracking in future. That should have the libertarians and privacy campaigners up in arms, even if not necessarily the grassroots motorists.
Even hardcore libertarians might concede, however, that without changes of some kind - Managed Motorway, outright national road pricing, a colossal and now probably unaffordable road-building programme, something - the UK's busier roads will grind to a halt more and more often over the coming decade.
What's the least-worst option? Cash tollbooths, anyone? ®
* Someone who drives the same make and colour of vehicle as you - numbers are easily checked for these details on a variety of motor-trade, insurance and gov websites, assuming you don't want to walk about and just copy a number off the first appropriate wheels you see.