Felix Salmon

Skymeter’s congestion pricing solution

By Felix Salmon
May 25, 2010

My Wired article about Charles Komanoff went through a lot of editing, as you might expect for a story in the June issue of a magazine which starts with a lunch in December. And sadly, one of the big bits which ended up on the cutting-room floor was the stuff about Skymeter, a Toronto-based company which gets a brief shout-out at the end of the piece, and whose chief scientist, Bern Grush, has a great blog devoted entirely to congestion pricing.

The idea behind Skymeter is that they use what they call financial-grade GPS: devices in your car which are much more accurate than the GPS devices found in navigation devices or cellphones. They can tell where you are to within a few centimeters, and once you can do that, all manner of possibilities open up in terms of charging not just to get into a city center, but rather to charge by the mile or by the minute on specific streets. Raise prices where congestion is worst, keep them low where it isn’t a problem, and solve lots of other problems at the same time — like easy charging for parking (you just park your car on the side of the road and pay for however long it’s parked there) and for pay-by-the-mile insurance. Or transform the economics of something like Zipcar, which currently just charges by the hour even when charging by a combination of hours and miles would make more economic sense.

A GPS-based congestion-pricing system makes an enormous amount of sense: no gantries to build, and no weird artifacts like the ones you’d get in New York if you just charged everybody driving south of 60th Street. That’s the way to charge lots of money to drive on Avenue D, and no money to drive around downtown Brooklyn: it’s silly. And the technology is already up and running: Germany and the Slovak Republic are using GPS devices on trucks, and Singapore has announced it’s going to install it on all motor vehicles at some point. What’s more, the European Union is heavily invested in it, now that it’s spent $4 billion on a new GPS satellite network called Galileo.

Skymeter has done a very good job of making sure that it addresses privacy issues very carefully: essentially there aren’t any, and it’s easy to wipe all history of where you’ve been when you pay your bill. (Of course, you can keep that history for your own records if you like.) The company is also careful on the billing front: the system is designed so that where there are errors — and there will always be errors — they will be in favor of the driver, not the tax collector.

Skymeter devices wouldn’t even need to be mandated: you just make them so desirable that everybody wants one, because they make things like insurance and parking so much easier and cheaper. In theory, lots of things are possible: you could even pay people not to drive on a certain day if you wanted. And you make life hard on cars without the devices, by charging them large tolls to cross bridges, and lots of money for parking — that kind of thing.

The main problem with Skymeter right now is the up-front cost of manufacturing and installing the devices, but that’s coming down rapidly, and I’m pretty sure that eventually we’re all going to live in a world where our auto-related expenditures are paid automatically, and a dynamic system of congestion prices keeps traffic speeds up. (The devices can even give you a big rebate if it takes you longer than say 15 minutes to get across town.) It’s all a bit sci-fi, but I believe it both can and will happen at some point. I just don’t know when.

9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Completely unpredictable pricing? Great, now when I drive I can get the same warm and fuzzy feeling that I get while playing the airline ticket casino.

Posted by nedofbaker | Report as abusive

Yeah, I agree: if the purpose of the tax is more to influence behavior than raising revenue (though it’s that too, obviously), then you need a clear price signal. But since the price might gyrate rapidly and unpredictably, how effectively will the price signal?

Posted by dariustahir | Report as abusive

No need for unpredictability, you’d probably not change the pricing more than once or twice a year, tops.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

On trucks it makes for a very efficient system. Considering that heavy trucks cause multiples of the wear and use of public roads this is effective for pricing their negative externalities on the infrastructure.

Regarding private transportation it is an Orwellian nightmare. After 9/11 no one can believe in an anonymous system that will be guarded from abuse. The completely transparent citizen will soon be a loyal subject again.

Posted by Finster | Report as abusive

If you think that precise records of exactly where you’ve been ever moment you’re in your car won’t be kept and used by the government, you aren’t paying attention. They’re already using the congestion pricing camera system in London to track cars when the police “feel they need to”.

Are you comfortable receiving speeding tickets in the mail? Subpoenas for the route data for use in family law cases? How about advertising for businesses on your frequently used routes? That’s not even considering the myriad uses and justifications for such use that will be dreamed up by law enforcement.

Once the data is collected, it’s utopian to think it won’t be repurposed and abused.

Posted by meander | Report as abusive

It may be ingenious technology, but applying it to extort more money from road users whose registration fees already were supposed to ensure smooth traffic flow is an elaborate form of double dipping reminiscent of Thatcherite centralist privilegism. Call me old-fashioned if you like but I don’t think cities worth living in should ever be put behind a paywall. To me, that’s bad policy.

If urbs are too big, it’s because someone in urban planning got in over their heads. Sorry, but they should be paying, not humble road users of necessity.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Skymeter costs will be 1/2 of what they are today in a year’s time


Posted by STORYBURNcom2 | Report as abusive

So, would this added cost be countered by a lower gas tax, licensing fee, or anything else? Or would it just be a new revenue stream?

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Speaking of sci-fi connections, the reference to Skynet is perhaps a bit disturbing.

Posted by the_iron_troll | Report as abusive

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