Friday, January 19, 2007

Facts are optional

An interesting letter found its way into The Daily Telegraph today, from London-based David Leeder, vice chairman of the commission for integrated transport.

He observes that the campaign launched by the paper against road pricing is "curious". Why, asserts Leeder, "should tarmac be priced any differently from, say, electricity or telecommunications? If anything, it is in shorter supply, and yet the driver in a motorway jam will pay exactly the same in fuel, car tax and car insurance as a driver in rural Wales whizzing along an empty road." He continues:

The costs to the driver are the same, wherever he is and however much he uses the service. And yet we pay more for using electricity or the telephone at peak times because we think it right to charge more when something is in more demand. Most economists agree with this. So does Sir Rod Eddington, who has recently put the cost to the United Kingdom of our congested roads at £7 billion to £8 billion a year.

Charging for road use as we do any other service would quite simply make better use of the existing network. Some roads would be expensive – and some very, very cheap. At the Commission for Integrated Transport, we have established that replacing car and fuel tax with a system of variable national road pricing could cut congestion by 44 percent, traffic by five percent.

Faster and more reliable car journeys would bring huge benefits to the economy.
Mr Leeder, however, has missed the point. Firstly, as he indicates, the system is only likely to be accepted if motorists believe that road pricing will be used as an alternative to road taxation, and not simply as another revenue stream for a cash-strapped government. And very few people actually believe that it will be treated in any other way than as more cash for Gordon.

Secondly, there are serious – and in my view unresolvable – civil liberty issues linked to the GPS technology that will be the core of any national road pricing system. Many people complain about an ID card but this issue, in its own way, is just as serious – that every journey anyone takes in their own car will be recorded and it will become possible, in real time, to identify the location of any car in the road. This is totally unacceptable.

However, if we are correct, there is no immediate likelihood of a national system of road pricing being introduced. With the regulatory and technical delays involved, it would be amazing if we see anything before 2020.

If we are to have a serious debate about the issue, though, many journalists need to up their game. In May last, we noted the extreme ignorance displayed in one newspaper about how a GPS-based pricing system worked. And yesterday, we saw another quite stunning example of the same ignorance.

This was from transport correspondent David Millward, who told us that the system "entails fitting a black box in a car which enables a GPS satellite to track the vehicle's movements and calculate a 'pay as you drive' bill."

He then told us that "the satellite could be thwarted by a device known as a GPS jammer, which costs around £140." Even though they are illegal throughout the European Union, Millward adds, they are readily available in the Far East and could be imported from countries such as Taiwan.

Thus does our correspondent call in aid David Broughton, the director of the Royal the Institute of Navigation to add that, "People could be really resentful with the sort of charges they could face… They may well look for ways of getting around it and jammers could become very popular."

One really does wish of those people that they would take the time to find out how systems worked before opening their mouths and inserting their feet firmly in the cavities.

As we explained in our May post, GPS is a passive system – it is blind. The satellites simply transmit signals, which are received by the ground equipment – and it is this equipment which calculate the positions. Those data are then sent on to the control station by an integral GMS mobile phone, where the billing is calculated and charges raised. A typical unit is illustrated, top left.

One really wonders at the nature of minds of people like Millward. Has he any idea how big and how complex a satellite would have to be – and the amount of power it would consume – if it had continuously, actively to track the millions of cars underneath its path, identify them and them communicate to a ground station the charging details of each vehicle tracked?

As for the idea of jamming the signal, what would be the point? The enforcement system is entirely different from the registration and charging system. Road users are monitored by either by gantry-mounted cameras, with automatic number plate recognition (top right), or mobile camera units.

The system checks whether vehicles have logged into the system and, if not, alerts mobile patrols (illustrated, above left) and a uniformed official (right) then stops the "rogue" vehicles. Vehicles jamming the signal would not register on the system and would, therefore, automatically be marked down for stopping.

Once again, these facts are easily and quickly verifiable on the internet, but getting your facts right these days – it seems – is an optional extra.

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