Network Musings

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and contributor to solutions for urban mobility is a kindred thinker. One of her current companies is Meadow Networks. (The other is goloco, a pretty interesting idea, as well.) If reading is a challenge, you can watch her, instead.

Mesh networks were where I started my congestion-pricing thinking in 2002 before I was persuaded that once Location Anonymity* was feasible, global navigation satellites were the only way to replace the fuel tax. To be fair, that's a simplification, a re-ordering of events -- I did think a lot about mesh networks, and I did find a solution to privacy protection, and I did think navigation satellites were the only way to be universal - i.e., interoperable everywhere without any new infrastructure (actually without any ground infrastructure at all), but I did not fully understand until 2007 that congestion is essentially kept in place by taxing the wrong thing. By then I was already five years into this. But with such fabulous hindsight, we now have perfect social and economic motivation for these inventions.

But here is why I introduce you to Robin's thinking and that of one of her advisers, Andrew Blumberg, a postdoc at Stanford
: there are not a lot of people thinking about congestion cessation AND the preservation of our last shreds of privacy, but I do not think we can have one without the other -- i.e., without a privacy solution, we won't see universal GPS-based tolling. Evidently, neither do Robin and Andrew.

Furthermore, the intersection of satellite tolling and mesh networks opens some amazing opportunities for valuable real-time services. Tolling, per se, has no requirement to be real-time, but things like parking finders, congestion-based navigation, probe vehicles do. Mesh-networks could add a lot of value in urban settings, while satellite tolling would retain the requisite universality so that any country wishing to replace the fuel tax could.

* Andrew and Robin calls it "Locational Privacy", which they define as "the ability to walk in public space and drive on public roads with the expectation that one's movements are not being tracked or recorded for later analysis". Meadow's and Skymeter's
methods are different. But both ensure you are untrackable.

And that is a good thing. Having multiple ways to protect privacy sends an important message to motorists: We can move from pay-by-tank-full to pay-by-road-use without exposing anyone's sexual shenanigans. My personal ad hoc research says that is indeed what people are really worried about. I have been asked at every talk I give "will my wife be able to know where I am?" Even a local high-profile radio host asked me
in a pre-recorded session "Can anyone see if I turn into a strip-joint?" (it was expunged). No woman has asked me the mirror question (perhaps because they are more discreet), nor has any tax evader asked me whether his government will know he has an unregistered job. To be plain, here, I am suggesting that the single greatest adversary to congestion pricing is marital infidelity, and not the polite-but-boring economic argument called "market pricing is better than free-road entitlement". What Robin and I are saying is that congestion can be fixed even while your neighbor continues his philandering.

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