The UK's Transport minister has confirmed that technical trials of road-pricing systems are underway.
At a conference yesterday, Paul Clark discussed the ongoing tests - first reported in September - with delegates and journalists.
The government, despite having seemed to back away from a national road pricing scheme last year, has in fact simply proceeded with them under the new name "Managed Motorway". The government argues that no affordable level of road-building will keep traffic moving in years to come, so that maintaining the status quo is not an option.
“If we sit back and do nothing you can be sure that economic growth will lead to gridlock," said Clark, suggesting that perhaps sitting back and doing nothing for the next while might indeed be an option.
The Managed Motorway concept includes measures such as hard-shoulder driving and strictly-enforced lowered speed limits at peak times, which enable a given number of motorway lanes to get a significant amount more traffic through in a given time. These measures don't involve any extra payments by motorists, but they do require the use of widespread automated numberplate recognition (ANPR) average-speed traps to enforce the reduced speed limits.
Then, Managed Motorway also includes the use of paid toll lanes - in effect, road pricing. This could also be managed by the use of ANPR.
However, the government acknowledges that numberplates are easily stolen or faked beyond the ability of ANPR to detect - finding out the make and colour of vehicle registered under a given number is a trivial matter.
As Managed Motorway rolls out, then - with or without road pricing/toll lanes - there will be more and more powerful incentives to use faked plates and evade the ever-widening ANPR net. Hence the government plans to introduce networked satnav journey-logger devices, now being developed by several companies.
At least initially, the devices would be optional, punted as a convenience option. Rather than having to remember to pay all the various tolls you might have incurred in a day - through local zones like the London Congestion Charge, pay lanes on the motorways etc - your in-car box would keep track for you, transmit the info to a central computer, and a single bill would be generated.
According to the Times, Mr Clark has even suggested that the in-car box could be set up not to record or transmit any location information, merely mileages driven at each rate.
But in the end this is not a convenience system - if that were all it was, there would be no need to have the box networked at all. It could simply tell the honest motorist what tolls to pay at the end of the day in order to avoid any ANPR-generated enforcement fines. There'd be no need to have it as part of the car - your smartphone could do it.
The function of the network connection and central records is to make spoofing the system harder, not to make life easier for drivers. In future you could opt out of the voluntary box scheme and copy or steal someone else's plates (someone whose car was the same make and colour as yours, and not being used) - then drive about running up tolls and creating an ANPR trail in their name, happy in the knowledge that the surveillance state had no idea where you were and no reason to pull you over.
But you'd never know whether the car whose identity you had usurped was fitted with a tracker box. If it had, the roads panopticon could swiftly spot the mismatch between the activities of the box and the plates. Stealing the box as well might be tricky - it would no doubt feature anti-tamper technology.
In future, then, one might need to use a bit of nous to drive about unmonitored. To be honest, the simplest and most legal way would probably be to hire minicabs or limousines for cash, but you could also get creatively illegal. GPS signal simulator spoofing, cell phone jamming (to cut off the boxes' data link) and suchlike trickery may become as common as faked plates and registrations are right now.
Back in the mainstream, meanwhile, it also appeared that the gov doesn't rule out charging higher tolls for more carbon-intensive cars. The maximum rate envisaged per mile would normally be £1.30 - usually much less - but with heavy pressure on the national emissions targets it could be that gas guzzlers might face a national squeeze of the type that ex London mayor Ken Livingstone proposed to impose.