Charging ahead in traffic management

Ian Macgregor, Head of UK Marketing for T-Systems' traffic management subsidiary, Satellic

Whether we like it or not (and most do not!), road charging is on its way and has been for years.

The motivations have changed over time and may continue to do so - but whether driven by the need to reduce and manage congestion, to offer more responsible environmental controls, or simply to replace fuel-related revenues lost as a result of more efficient engines or alternative-fuel vehicles - road charging is definitely on the horizon.

In the end, the precise look and feel of any scheme will be determined by political policy and motivation rather than by technology architects. Its introduction may occur gradually, by region, vehicle-type or some other variable metric, or we may see a more universal and immediate implementation.

Either way, the ultimate result will be large-scale, directly affecting millions of vehicles in the UK. So how will today's technology cope with the challenges ahead and what can we deduce from existing examples of large-scale road charging schemes?
There is probably only one example in the world of a road charging scheme capable of addressing the ultimate needs of what the Department for Transport seems to be planning for the UK.

This example is found in Germany, where all lorries over 12 tonnes are charged for travelling on Germany's 12,000 km of federal motorways.
In 2005, in its first year of operation, this scheme invoiced over 23 billion kilometers of driven motorway, raising the German Federal Government's planned revenue target of just under 3 billion for reinvestment in the country's transport infrastructure.
The German scheme is based on satellite technology and has equipped half a million vehicles with on-board units to assist with positioning and distance-based charge calculations. The use of satellite technology is necessary and deliberate.

It is the only viable technology for such a large-scale scheme as it requires no road side infrastructure for charging vehicles. An 'invisible' satellite-based scheme was really the only option in Germany - and this is now the case in the UK, where we anticipate road charging on a scale not yet seen anywhere else in the world.

'Invisible' road charging with Toll Collect in Germany.

The obvious difference between the scheme planned for the UK and that in operation in Germany is scale. The different requirements for road charging in the UK will have a significant impact on technology and how it will develop to meet these needs. The differences in scale can be broadly categorised to include:

  • Number and type of end users;
  • The size and characteristics of the road network.

Number and type of users

In Germany, the satellite scheme is scaled to charge 1 - 2 million HGVs > 12t, as specified by the German Government. In the UK, we may be looking at over 30 million vehicles for the ultimate scheme.

In Germany, on-board equipment is fitted in truck tractor units which are rugged, working environments where function triumphs over form.

The basic technology used in Germany is proven and offers a promising start for any new scheme in the UK.

However, UK on-board equipment will be used by private users as well as the commercial sector and will need to work with vehicles ranging from trucks to taxis and from pick-ups to Porsches.

Responsive customer care, ergonomics, colour options, usability, in-vehicle safety and easy application with the vehicle (as opposed to any hard-wired installation) will all play a more significant role in the planned UK consumer-dominated scheme.

Elements such as data management and communications infrastructure are also impacted upon by scale but will pose far less of a challenge since the processes to make these

work are already in operation in Germany and can be relatively easily adapted to the UK's needs without great impact on the technology.

Databases will be much larger and communications requirements greater with some cost advantages to the UK Government as higher volumes enable greater bargaining power to reduce charges for transferring data over the existing mobile networks.

The size and characteristics of the road network

The real challenge for any road charging scheme is of course ensuring customer and consumer confidence.

In relation to the road network, this means that the system will have to be trusted in the most challenging of operational environments.
For satellite systems, this means crowded urban areas with frequent road junctions, high-rise buildings and underpasses.

As the technology matures, software to compensate for these challenges is improving all the time.

In addition, GPS accuracy and sensitivity is improving dramatically as component costs fall. In London, where satellite systems are currently undergoing intensive tests, the results are very encouraging.

While road charging technology progresses at a pace, questions still remain as to the true motivation (or motivations) for road charging in the UK. Is it simply to be a congestion management tool or are there also environmental and tax revenue drivers? Answering this may still prove the biggest challenge of all.