Telcos, Tollcos

On April 28th, this year, Secretary Mary Peters spoke at The Brookings Institution. There she said that congestion in America is worse than ever; that it will continue to get worse; that the gas tax is unresponsive, unsustainable, and unpopular; and that Americans will not agree to increase that gas tax. She added that the “brass-ring opportunity we have before us is to substantially change that system and move forward to something that is more user responsive and more market-based.”

Later in response to a question, Secretary Peters, said that HOT lanes are an interim measure “…a stepping stone to get people acclimated to paying a fee for use of a section of roadway at a peak period of time.” And that here in America we will eventually go to a “vehicle miles traveled (VMT) form of pricing”, by which she means the same thing as the Europeans mean by Time-Distance-Place (TDP) charging. When I asked later how far away that might be, she said “some states cannot wait more than ten years”. The AASHTO Journal in both April and May of this year puts the date for a switch-over to VMT at 2025.

USDOT and Secretary Peters do NOT see market pricing as a way to maximize revenue, rather as a way to maximize network performance – i.e., if we can price to reduce congestion, sufficient funding and somewhat cleaner air will naturally follow.

Given this rapid awakening of Americans to the need to switch to TDP pricing, the American prediction that this will occur somewhere between 2018 and 2025 coupled with the European prediction that it is between 2011-2020 and predictions by many other countries for times in between, this thing might be well past half-way done by 2020.

But what thing?

The EU has declared GNSS to be the only known technology that can feasibly apply TDP pricing everywhere; if the transportation leadership in America sees HOT as interim and sees GPS as the endgame, then we are talking GNSS-tolling in a big way – perhaps 300M vehicles worldwide by 2020.

How is that going to be done? For the US, "ten years" is awfully close. The experimentation, cross-vendor bake-offs and standards bodies in the EU are in a dead heat to be ready for the 2011 kickoff by the Netherlands which has 9M vehicles against Americas 250M. Right now the EU schemes on the drawing board are still expensive; they demand a massive telecommunication commitment, either sophisticated heuristic map-matching at the dashboard or massive amounts of raw data moving to a central processing area. There is nothing on the drawing board that will network to support 300M vehicles. So far we are at 640,000 trucks in open sky in Germany – 0.21% of what is being predicted for 2020.

What will we do here in America? We could assume the Europeans will solve it, then import their technology? Is that what we want? And what if they don’t solve it?

So far as I am aware, the GPS-tolling experiments executed in America have not sought to solve the problem of tolling using Liability Critical GPS as some of those in the EU have addressed – albeit unsuccessfully so far. Rather these experiments use navigation-quality GPS receivers to test user acceptance, state boundary detection, and user modal adaptability. The Europeans have shown repeatedly in Copenhagen, in London, in Amsterdam and in several other cities that navigation grade GPS will not work in our cities due to signal interference.

Let’s assume the problem of low-cost Liability Critical GPS will be solved and shared around the globe. This is a reasonable gamble, since one company already claims this. Still how would such a system be deployed?

What we want to do is:

  • put a small device that includes GPS in a few hundred million vehicles,
  • measure road use in small time, distance and place increments,
  • log that use privately – maybe even anonymously,
  • move that data wirelessly to a billing capability,
  • generate bills for many tens of such small transactions, perhaps hundreds per month per user,
  • set up credit, debit, and pre-paid accounts for these users,
  • handle device fulfillment, customer support, troubleshooting, device repair and replacement
  • make sure motorist driving in an area far away from their home RUC provider can “roam” on the roads of another provider and have the transaction handled seamlessly.
This mimics exactly what the Telcos do now. There are two differences; first the device meters road use instead of handling voice and email, and second it is attached to your windshield instead of your ear. Otherwise, the business of being a Road Network Tolling Operator is identical to that of being a wireless network operator.

The only organizations that can toll the entire United States on short notice are the Telcos. And 10 years is short notice. We should get started.

No comments: