Breaking the mold

Thinking about universal road tolling for those who are not planning, designing, or making policy for it, is often very simple. Most opinions are one of: “not-on-my-roads”, “big-brother” or “it’s inevitable”.

For those working or thinking about this all day, issues range from acceptance, cost containment, economic effects, economic efficiency, enforcement, fairness, how to get started, privacy protection, what prices to set, what technology to use, when to start, which roads/areas to price, and many more. The considerations that need to be addressed are even more numerous and far more nuanced than this, and as with any program that meets with social and political resistance, one can imagine how difficult a mandated transition could become.

So far the history of GNSS-tolling has been government driven. A few EU countries have mandated countrywide truck tolling, usually on limited access highways. Germany’s GNSS-based truck-tolling system is the most matured example, although we can expect three more countries to join them during the 2010-12 period.

In the United States, the history of GNSS-tolling systems has been one of pilots and trials, such as in Oregon, Puget Sound and the current Iowa trial set in several US cities. More government initiatives.

To date, a government writes a request for proposals (RFP), companies submit tenders and an operational system (Germany) or a pilot (Oregon, etc) results. This government-led approach has four effects:
  1. Established companies wait in anticipation for large government contracts; but during that wait, the impetus for innovation is non-existent.
  2. Innovation, when it is unleashed, is bounded by the RFPs, which are generally written by consultants or bureaucrats familiar, perhaps, with knowledge of past pilots or something tried by one or more EU countries. Imagination may be bounded by the catalogue of work completed.
  3. Solutions are limited to single-functions because bureaucracies are stove-piped (road and parking people exchange few ideas, for example).
  4. Governments view transportation as a core economic management function upon which rests productivity-related movements of goods and people, and for which taxes must be raised and managed; hence, the requirements of collection and enforcement will trump the opportunities for service and value to the motorist. (This last point is becoming an increasingly sensitive issue as the social view of motorists begins to degrade as did the social perception of the smoker during the past 2 decades.* This effect, generally overlooked, will make migration to per-use payment more difficult as drivers will tend to feel harassed rather than served.)


* Notice that automotive manufacturers generally address motorists in one way, while toll collection authorities do so in another. It does not have to be this way. Road Authorities provide critical and valuable services – why not sell them as a benefit? At least two European manufacturers of multi-function tolling and payment systems, Kapsch and Q-Free, pitch lifestyle choices of convenience, and non-stop driving.
What would happen if a private company started to offer GNSS-based road-use meters for parking and PAYD-insurance, and what if these same meters could be used to collect existing tolls now handled by RFID or DSRC systems? What if they could also enable rewards, loyalty points and discounts? What if motorists found such a payment and reward platforms to be attractive?

We have started providing road-use meters to drivers in Winnipeg for use as parking meters a couple of weeks ago. This commercial approach is a first in the world. By that I mean, a private company is deploying satellite-based metering and fee collection on a voluntary basis for automobiles without government mandate (as was the case in Germany) or without a disposable and expensive pilot (as in Oregon, PSRC or Iowa). This system is a commercial system that will stay and grow if successful or wither and die if not. The government helps by providing parking pricemaps (locations and payment rules), telling its residents it is available (this marketing expense is perhaps the most substantial expense) and providing a few weeks of free parking and helping early adopters with a device down payment to get the project kicked off. We are able to keep some of the parking revenues which is expected to be more than offset by the City's ability to reduce enforcement costs and expand the range of parking-enforced areas.

The result is happier drivers, lower operating and enforcement cost per metered spot, enablement of expanded parking management at little cost, and most importantly experience with GNSS-based payment telematics that both governments and drivers sorely need to overcome fears and to see benefits. Our users are drivers who seek the convenience of not paying at a parking meter and the guarantee of no "parking tickets" (we simply graduate the fee upward as their stay overruns).

Here is one way to think about this approach to reduce or remove system costs for tolling the United States (this will be published in a month or so).

Here is how I thought Steve Jobs might approach the problem of an in-car meter.

No comments: