Wednesday, 27 July 2011

More GNSS road pricing trials, but is much really learnt?

The European GNSS Agency (GSA) essentially exists to promote the EU’s competition for GPS, Galileo, by encouraging applications of GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) technology more generally. It funded a research project to identify how the road transport sector could use the technology, understandably it ended up with road pricing.

Inside GNSS reports on a project, called GINA (GNSS for Innovative road Applications – yes EU agencies aren’t great at acronyms, just Google GSA!) involved another (there have been many examples of this) set of field tests for the use of GNSS technology to charge for road use. Given the technology is used already in Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia and New Zealand to actually charge vehicles, you might wonder how much more is to be learned.

The project started in March 2009 and ended this year, with full details available on its website. The prime driver behind the project is listed as:

GINA proposes to address the existing obstacles preventing a large scale take-off of road pricing and other services (VAS) based on the use of EGNOS/Galileo by:
• Proving the technical feasibility and economical viability of a large scale, GNSS-only road pricing scheme (alternatives to GNSS are being considered by authorities)
• Fully identifying the potential benefits related to congestion and pollution management
• Demonstrating the possibility of VAS running on a road pricing operating platform, as well as the use of the same on board equipment shared by different applications
• Understanding the added value of the EU technology in terms of performance or cost improvement compared to GPS-only.

There are extensive newsletters and the like on the website, so I wont go into detail. However, it appears not to have been driven so much by policy makers, but by GNSS technicians. Take this point:

A particular focus is on protecting users against the incorrect charging that can sometimes arise from large position errors and service interruptions resulting from the use of a single unaugmented GNSS system, such as the current GPS or GLONASS civil services, which lack a built-in integrity capability.

It implies that anyone implementing road pricing would simply use GPS without any other form of measurement of distance or correlation to location (such as map matching). It is simply designed to prove how augmenting GPS will improve accuracy, which is a fait accompli. 

The summary result is that it came up with what it claims is an inexpensive on board unit that doesn’t need an on board map to measure distance. By response to that is “so what”? There already is one operating in New Zealand manufactured by a company called ERoad that does just that, with GPS.

The REAL benefit that comes from any form of GNSS based distance charging is being able to distinguish location and time of day anywhere in a network, that includes not charging for being off road. It means that roads can be priced accurately, everywhere.

The report here suggests that the trials would allow this, only by creating “geofences” as wide cordons, so that vehicles crossing certain co-ordinate defined points, could be charged differently.

My bigger question is whether there really is anything new learnt from any of this? The study was commissioned by a body with a vested interest in promoting Galileo and EGNOS, all very well. Certainly the greater accuracy Galileo and EGNOS can bring will be welcomed, but the issues with rolling out GNSS road pricing are not mainly around accuracy of signals. They are around:
- Logistics and costs of installing OBUs on large fleets;
- Public acceptability of OBUs, especially around privacy;
- Managing the unequipped user efficiently and effectively.

However, GSA doesn’t exist to deal with those issues, it only wants to prove GPS isn’t good enough – when, in fact, it has proven that it is.

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