Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/15/road_pricing_pulled_over_gps_governor/

Road pricing 'back-burnered' by Brown gov't

As Mayor Ken eyes GPS governor kit

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 15th October 2007 15:31 GMT

Blighty's dark Orwellian future may have been put on hold, as news breaks that the Brown government has abandoned road-pricing plans in their current various forms. The city government of London, meanwhile, under the direction of roguish cheeky-chappie Mayor Ken Livingstone, continues to charge ahead with technology-based traffic control solutions.

Reports of the government U-turn on national road pricing appeared first in the Telegraph yesterday. The broadsheet scribes say they've had an advance look at Department for Transport (DfT) draft responses to points raised by backbench MPs around road-pricing legislation.

Apparently, DfT mandarins - no doubt with Cabinet clearance - will tell the parliamentarians that:

"It is not the department's intention, at this stage, to take the separate powers needed to price the national road network."

It seems that congestion - the primary justification for introducing road pricing - is primarily a local problem and thus not suitable for a national solution.

"We agree that there are congestion problems on parts of the strategic road network," says the DfT, "but 88 per cent of congestion is in urban areas. Therefore it is sensible to prioritise the assessment of road pricing in these areas."

The new plan will be to let local governments price or otherwise regulate their bits of the road network as they see fit. So far the main example of this is the London congestion charge, which is enforced by using controversial Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) technology to track vehicle movements.

Predictably, in the wake of recent clownish "carbomb" attempts, the government has granted terror police routine access to the London tracking system. This has confirmed the widely-held view that no matter the initial purpose of any vehicle-tracking technology, it will swiftly become an automated surveillance tool.

National road-pricing - quite apart from being unpopular in itself with motorists - would by its nature have included means of tracking every vehicle in Britain centrally, with obvious privacy implications. Unsurprisingly, it hasn't been seen as a vote-winner by the nervous new Brown government.

"It has been back-burnered," according to a Telegraph "senior government source".

Democracy in action, perhaps; though it's worth noting that the proliferation of ANPR - if not any onboard tracking kit - seems to be proceeding unchecked.

Meanwhile, London voters in the main seem happy enough with vehicle tracking and congestion charging; but that's not all that the city government has in mind.

This notice from the London transport bureaucracy seeks proposals for "speed limiter" technology to be fitted to vehicles. The gear would include satnav, but wouldn't be intended to function as a tracking setup. Rather, the box would use GPS (or Galileo, perhaps, in future) to locate itself on a "digital speed limit map of London", supplied by the authorites. If the vehicle was exceeding the local speed limit, the box would either sound an alarm or even cut the throttle, preventing any acceleration through the legal maximum. According to the proposed spec, a dashboard or steering wheel control button would allow a driver to select warning or throttle cut-out modes - or switch the kit off altogether - as desired.

At least as it's described, the governor kit would offer no chance for the authorities to monitor users, though the box would boast a wireless data channel "to process updates to the map".

Transport for London (TfL), as operators of a considerable fleet themselves, indicate that they want the kit for their own vehicles to begin with. However, "if the initial trial on TfL vehicles proves successful" they'd be looking to "promote the technology throughout London".

Promoting a fairly expensive and annoying thing like that to private motorists might take a bit of doing, though big organisations might go for it to boost their safety record or image. TfL already use congestion charge exemptions to promote electric cars or other tech which they deem to be desirable; perhaps they plan some sort of rebate for governed vehicles along the same lines. Such ideas were mooted during a previous trial in Leeds a couple of years ago. In that scenario, it's hard to imagine that the option to turn the gear off would remain.

Presumably Mayor Ken approves of this idea. His rival in the upcoming Mayoral elections, Boris Johnson, is also known to favour at least some of TfL's recommended vehicles, on the grounds that people should be able to make their own decisions and take their own risks. That ought to put him in opposition to the planned speed limiter gear, but with politicians you never know.®