An always-on, always watching ERP system has many potential pitfalls
(This column was originally written in October 2014, CarBuyer 227. But with the tender for ‘ERP 2.0’ now confirmed it looks like a usage-based road pricing that’s always on is going to be a concrete reality.)
The LTA recently announced its taking tenders for a satellite-based road pricing system. We’ve all known it’s being considered, but this is the most concrete step we’ve seen so far that it’s really going to happen – in the press release it states the system should go into operation around 2020.
But before we all start with the conspiracy theories, there are many benefits to the system. Whether or not they trump the disadvantages is all in the execution and administration of the system itself. Which is why every single driver out there should keep a close eye on the development of the systems to see if their concerns about it are addressed in a satisfactory manner.
Here’s a short round-up to get you started
BIG YES: It has tremendous potential to be a fair system
The LTA states the system uses GLONASS, which is more accurate than GPS under the right conditions, although both systems currently have a maximum accuracy of about five-metres. Survey-grade GNSS receivers have centimetre-level accuracy. With a correction factor (a bureaucrat’s favourite term) it could certainly serve to track the rough distance travelled by a vehicle, within reason. A mechanic of this sort, if reliable, could provide the basis for a shift from taxing ownership (COEs, ARF, etc) to taxing usage. The latter is now only currently covered under the ERP system.
BIG MAYBE: It has to be a fair system to begin with
‘Fair’ is a partially-objective term, since to some people it means ‘as long as I pay less’. But a new system should address the shortcomings of the current taxation scheme. Here’s a good example: Currently a 2.5-litre passenger car pays almost as much Road Tax as a diesel VHGV (Very Heavy Goods Vehicle) with a metric load capacity of 40 to 55 tonnes. That obviously isn’t fair since the petrol car pollutes less, takes up less road space, and judging from the current construction boom, might be on the road for far less time than the VHGV. What’s fair is up for debate, obviously, but the key aim of the system must be to manage congestion, and not, as cynics will no doubt imply, the continuation of cash flow.
BIG MAYBE: The system must be completely transparent
A system to track usage and that charges you accordingly. If it’s to replace taxation of ownership, it probably won’t be cheap – that’s why accuracy must be proven, preferably at the highest level possible. If not, people will never accept such a system. Can you imagine being charged by a taxi driver at plus minus 20 cents? Of course not, and with a road-pricing system it must be clear, consistent, accurate and nigh-infallible.
BIG MAYBE: The system must have multiple-redundancy
Nigh infallible leads us to the next point. An internet search throws up instances of GLONASS satellite errors, some lasting as long as 11 hours. Other occurrences, such as major solar flares can also interfere with signals. It’s obvious, with such a sensitive issue as taxation and transportation, that the onus must be on the LTA to clearly state the terms and conditions in case of such failures, as well as multiple redundancy systems. You don’t expect people to pay for a defective train ride, for example.
BIG MAYBE: We all have a right to privacy
I’ve saved the most important point for last. Much like a smartphone does now, a GLONASS-base system will track your car whenever it’s on the road. In essence, there will be a record of wherever you’ve been, no matter the time or day. It doesn’t take a bright spark to imagine the sort of other applications that can arise: prevention of car theft, hunting down fugitives and so on. But it brings back the sort of discussion about privacy and rights that have happened in the USA with Edward Snowden’s revelations about surveillance. It’s one of the more controversial aspects of the system, and the one that would most likely prevent it coming about. If it is implemented, it should apply only for one purpose (road-pricing) and there should also be extensive privacy protection laws to prevent any government agencies from using this data for other pursuits.
Now we all know government agencies don’t listen to journalists, indeed sometimes it’s the other way around for state-owned media outlets. But we also know the LTA, like most government agencies, is deathly afraid of public complaints. The age of the Internet has seen the rise of the troll and keyboard warrior. On the other hand, proper, coherent feedback to agencies and MPs is part of what can help make things better for everyone. Because who watches the watchmen? All of us.