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Peter Cochrane's Blog: How we'll beat road pricing

Jammers will proliferate and destroy GPS maps

Written at Chicago O'Hare during an unscheduled stopover with a storm on the horizon. Dispatched via free wi-fi in case I'm really in Hotel California - I seem to be able to get in here but sometimes wonder if I will ever get out

The UK has seen no significant road investment programme for more than 25 years and now has the highest traffic densities in the EU complemented by some of the poorest road maintenance standards.

Traffic jams are the norm, with the time and energy wasted exceeding the combined national education and heath budgets. And then of course there is the resulting CO2 pollution created by slow moving vehicles - which is at least double what would be if there were no jams!

Augment all of this with high taxes on road usage and fuel, and punitive parking and traffic violation fees, and I'm sure you get the picture. The GDP suffers and motorists seem to be locked into some kind of civil war with government.

Unfortunately all efforts to sort out public transport have seen no significant improvements and in many areas the situation is critical, especially in London where it seems to me the congestion charge has failed to improve traffic flows.

So what is the next big transport plan? Road pricing of up to $3 per mile at peak times - yes $3 per mile per car! Makes your eyes water doesn't it? And how will this be implemented? GPS (global positioning system) technology will be installed in every licensed vehicle, with each motorist having to pay $400 to $500 per vehicle for the pleasure.

Will such a scheme fly? Well, the technology has been tested and it looks feasible, and dates for a grand rollout are being tabled. So it looks reasonably likely it will happen. But will it succeed?

I think we can look forward to some interesting reactions to this technology and the attempt to charge by the mile. The military has already expressed worries about GSM Jamming and commercial jammers are available.

Of course the technically capable can easily create a jammer from low cost components.

So here is my prediction: drivers will invest in jammers and kill the GPS signal across large swathes of the country.

Government reaction will be to try to apprehend these people and prosecute them in the courts. But my guess is it will very quickly get out of hand and drivers will get downright devious.

They certainly have the motive. If you drive 1,000 miles per month, which is not unusually high in the UK, you will pay around $3,000 per month in road charges. But jammers can be constructed for less than $50.

So I could attach a jammer to my car and run the risk of detection and prosecution. Alternatively it would be far less risky, and still very cost effective to attach 10 or 15 jammers per month to other people's cars and trucks with magnets.

How many people would have to do this to cripple the entire national road pricing system? I reckon a mere 100 or so out of the 20 million car owners in the UK will do the trick.

It might go like this: month one of road charging sees around 1,500 jammers deployed, month two sees the figure rise to 3,000 and month three to 4,500. Then batteries will start to run down and the number will start to stabilise. But at the same time as the number of jammers deployed accelerates, the costs will fall and the numbers will continue to rise again. My guess is we would see a car fleet fully saturated with jammers in much less than a year.

At the same time the authorities will start tracking down the victims and run an appeal for everyone to check their car for jammers.

Hmm, I can't see that working! Wouldn't drivers rather feign ignorance, leave jammers in place and save a lot of money on charges?

So, are there 100 people in the population inclined to start such a GPS rebellion? My guess is it is more likely to be thousands and not hundreds! When CB radio was banned thousands bought units and the law had to be changed. The same was true of the iPod TravelMate FM transmitter for cars. People just did what appealed to them and government lost control. Seems to me GPS road charging will be an even more attractive victim.

To my mind the real downside to all this will be the loss of GPS maps. Many of us now see GPS as a vital part of our driving experience. To lose it this way would be a real shame but then again paper maps are real cheap.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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