Wrong track

At last we have found an issue that can rouse the sleeping giant of UK public opinion and prompt more than a million people to sign a record-breaking online petition.

The subject in question is pay-as-you-go road charging, and maybe the strength of negative feeling it has inspired should be no surprise. It’s Valentine’s Day today (in case you’d forgotten), but it is often said that Britain’s biggest collective love affair is with its cars.

In fact that’s untrue. What most people love is the convenience and flexibility their car brings to their daily lives, especially in the face of a public transport system that seems to take inconvenience and inflexibility as its watchwords.

This explains the strong feelings aroused by a road charging system that would, at its most ambitious, make us pay for every journey according to a set of pre-determined criteria based on time of day travelled, road used and vehicle owned.

The counter argument, of course, is that doing nothing will leave the UK as a giant floating car park within 20 years.

Let’s for a moment examine the subject not from the point of view of the rights and wrongs – privacy, fairness, freedom of choice etc – but instead think about the practicalities.

The key to making this work, as ever, is the technology. This involves ‘black boxes’ in cars, radio beacons and, above all, satellite technology of the GPS or Galileo variety.

The satellite is fast assuming the quasi-mythical status enjoyed by robots 40 years ago, when it was widely assumed that by now we would be living lives of indolence while our electro-mechanical friends catered for our every need.

In 2007 most of us are still putting out the rubbish and mowing the lawn, but the satellite – exemplified by the miracle of Satnav – is touted as the answer to all the world’s problems, from tracking known child molesters to monitoring the spread of bird flu.

Think, however, of the implications of monitoring, processing and correctly charging the untold millions of car journeys carried out every day on the UK’s roads.

Even if a technical solution could be implemented at an acceptable cost, the real devil is in the detail. The type of small-scale tests carried out so far barely scratch the surface of the reality.

You think you joined the M6 at 9.01, a minute after the off-peak toll kicked in. The system says otherwise. You have been charged full whack for a short hop down the A1 in rush hour, but your car was being driven by your elderly mother, who qualifies for a 50 per cent discount. The system didn’t know. The M2 was closed so you left it early and went through the back roads, but still got charged for a motorway journey. Sort that lot out, times by a few million.

Common sense suggest that micro-management of the UK motoring public in this way is a disaster waiting to happen. As so often, it is assumed that putting the technology in place is the end of the problem. In this case, it would just be the beginning.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online