Tuesday, 2 August 2011

UK concludes GPS based distance road pricing trials

As Singapore and Tel Aviv are about to start technology trials of urban congestion pricing using GPS, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) has reported the end of a recent technology trial that, it would be fair to say, has been well below the political and media radar.

The trial was described as:

The Demonstrations Project was a technical research project designed to establish how any system of road pricing by time, distance and place (TDP) could operate reliably, accurately and affordably, whilst safeguarding privacy.

In May 2007, the Department announced that it would work with industry to establish how road pricing by time, distance and place (TDP) might operate reliably, accurately and affordably, whilst safeguarding privacy. To facilitate this it set up the Demonstrations Project. 

In September 2008, the Department confirmed in the Official Journal of the European Union the names of the four companies selected to participate in the Demonstrations Project following an open competition - Intelligent Mechatronic Systems (UK), Sanef Tolling Limited, T-Systems Ltd and Trafficmaster plc. Each of these contractors engaged 100 volunteer road users to help explore questions of privacy, accuracy and practicability. 

A further three companies - Kapsch TrafficCom Limited, Q-Free ASA and Serco Ltd – were appointed to develop the systems necessary for both road users and the operators of a scheme to be confident that it was operating fairly. 

The key finding from the project is that commercially-run time, distance place charging systems (along with an associated payment regime) can deliver accuracy, privacy and a trusted service.


Four Road User Service Providers (RUSPs) took part in research commissioned by the UK Department for Transport (DfT): Sanef, Trafficmaster, T-Systems and Intelligent Mechatronic Systems.

Each demonstrated that a UK scheme could use technology employed elsewhere in Europe for tolling, navigation, fleet management and stolen vehicle tracking.

The services all met the [DfT] requirements for data protection, and offered options to meet the likely range of user requirements in relation to privacy and trust.

The report adds: “The underlying road pricing services are able to measure time, distance and place to a high degree of accuracy, although this was somewhat dependent on the availability of reception of GPS transmissions and the complexity of the charging rules.

So it can be done.  It is technically possible, but politically the future is in another approach for now.  After all, the start of these trials was under the previous government and already funded.  Given the change in government, there is virtually no political appetite for distance based road charging at the moment.  However, time-based road user charging for heavy vehicles is very much on the agenda, as reported previously.

The intention is that a UK vignette system for heavy vehicles will be in place by April 2014, following consultation and legislation.  It is presumed that it will involve an offsetting reduction in vehicle excise duty, otherwise known as road tax, which is charged on vehicles as an annual ownership levy.  UK lorry owners will pay much less on that, but the revenue will be made up by them having to purchase an annual (or less) vignette to pay for the roads.   Whether it is part of the multi-national Eurovignette or an exclusively UK one is unclear, what is clear is that it will mean foreign lorries having to pay in a way they never had to before, and that makes the Freight Transport Association happy indeed".

The full details of the "Road Pricing Demonstrations Project" are available now on the UK DfT website here, including all working papers (although the main reported appears corrupted).  It is all academic now, but essentially ought to dispel concerns about the practicality of such charging.

The real barriers are the political and public acceptability ones, and those are not likely to be resolvable through technology on.

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