« Enron: Ask Why | Main | Article of the Day »

April 28, 2005

HOT Lanes, Black Boxes, and Fairy Wings

The golden boy of Northwest news reporters, Timothy Egan, ventures to southern California to compose an excellent overview of the US trend toward high-occupant/toll (HOT) lanes in today’s New York Times. (Money quote: The Gubernator says, "Californians can't get from place to place on little fairy wings.") All across the United States, variable tolls—congestion pricing—are becoming the new conventional wisdom about how to do road expansions. In a few places, existing HOV lanes are up for conversion to HOT lanes.

The article shows the progress that road pricing has made in public acceptance, in part because it passes muster with both libertarians and sustainers. (Something I’ve noted here and here.)

But now consider the limitations of HOT lanes as a congestion pricing strategy. They have to be done lane by lane, road segment by road segment, and against considerable opposition and expense. The Cascadia region has more than 200,000 miles of streets and highways. It’ll be decades before congestion pricing can be widespread through HOT lanes alone.

A long shot alternative, which looks like the odds-on favorite when you look far enough into the future, is comprehensive, technology-based, road-use pricing such as that being tested experimentally by the Puget Sound Regional Council  and Oregon State University.

The PSRC pilot project has several hundred black boxes installed in the cars of Puget Sound area volunteers. Each month, the black boxes are replenished with about $100 of credit. Over the month, a satellite monitoring system sends instructions to the box for debiting road-use fees, in real time, based on the participant's driving: congestion and other factors on each segment of road driven. The entire road network is priced, virtually—most miles are very inexpensive; a few are very expensive. (A bonus for the volunteer participants in this pilot is that they get to keep any of the $100 credit that they don't spend by driving.)

Somewhat lower tech is the OSU technology. It’s a mileage meter with a small radio transponder installed in test vehicles. Sensors at gas stations read each test vehicles’ mileage at each fill up and add a per-mile charge to the gas bill—in place of fuel tax.

The political constituency for comprehensive road pricing is smaller than that for HOT lanes, because the highway-building industry likes HOT lanes (or any other means of generating millions of dollars for new roads). But technology trends could bring comprehensive road pricing into the real world more quickly than you’d imagine.

Consider a few things. Information technology is moving rapidly into new vehicles. Virtually all new luxury cars and half of all new GM cars now have GPS navigation systems installed in them when they roll off the assembly lines. The cost of these systems is falling (possibly in accordance with Moore’s “Law”). Car alarm companies are starting to offer satellite monitoring that’s connected to onboard navigation systems: if your car is stolen, the security company can tell you—or police—exactly where to find it. (Or, if you forget exactly where at the mall you parked, you can phone in to the security center and get directions.) With the fancier car security systems, the security center can even turn off and disable the engine if the car is stolen.

In the last twenty years, home security systems have swept the new house market in the Northwest. Virtually all new-construction homes have remote-monitored home security systems. It seems likely to me that new cars will be next, certainly within the next 20 years if not the next five.

Wireless connectivity through information technology is riding into the vehicle fleet on the horses of navigation and security. But once it’s there, it seems a small step to use the same technology for other purposes, such as pay-as-you-drive insurance (GM is starting to do this with its proprietary OnStar system, as we noted here) and such as road user charges.

In the end, it becomes technically possible to charge drivers in fairly direct proportion to the social costs of their driving: The per-mile charges could replace fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees and taxes entirely (and could also replace some general levies such as local sales taxes). They could be adjusted for time of day or roadway congestion, fuel economy, emissions ratings, and even engine noise.

Now, the convergence of all of this Buck Rogers technology is still some years in the future. But it’s probably a lot closer to us than a comprehensive system of road use charges built up one lane segment at a time.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference HOT Lanes, Black Boxes, and Fairy Wings:

» Drop it like it's HOT from Free Lunch
I managed to overlook an article in Thursday's New York Times on the growth of High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. Over at the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, Alan Durning comments on this, but extends the optimism to include black boxes in cars linked to sys... [Read More]

Tracked on May 1, 2005 6:24:51 PM


Gotta disagree with you here Alan.

This sort of high-tech GPS-based taxing system will probably never happen for a long list of reasons, namely that it's just a bad idea compared to other options.

First of all, the existing gas tax is already almost ideal in that it: (1) taxes road usage in proportion to the amount of use, (2) encourages conservation by taxing inefficient cars at a higher rate per mile, (3) Is simple and economical to administer (no fancy technology needed), and (4) taxes everyone including out-of-state and out-of-area cars that are passing through the region.

All of these high-tech ideas are fraught with problems. Just off the top of my head:

1. Enforcement difficulties. My brother is an electronic wiz and if such a system came to Seattle the first thing he would do is figure out how to pull the thing out of his car and leave it sitting in the garage while still transmitting signals so that the system thinks he isn't driving when he is. Within hours, instructions on how to disable these devices would be posted on the internet. A day later, someone else would figure out how to build a jamming device that could be carried in the car to jam the receipt of GPS signals from the satellite temporarily so that the system goes blind without being tampered with. 18-year olds would just take a hammer to them. How many THOUSANDS of technicians would be required to keep these things installed and working properly? How many hundreds of enforcement officers would be required to inspect vehicles to make sure the systems are properly installed and working properly? If you don't bust people for messing with them, sooner or later everyone but my mom will be driving around with a disabled device.

2. What kind of capital cost is required to put GPS machines in hundreds of thousands of cars around the region and then maintain them? Billions of dollars? In my old job with NMFS, one of the projects I worked on was a requirement that certain fishing vessels fishing in Alaska carry satellite VMS tracking devices to ensure that they don't fish in areas closed to fishing to protect sea lions. It was difficult enough to get 250 devices installed and working on the fishing fleet. Technicians are always out repairing malfunctioning devices. I can't imagine trying to do it on 500,000 vehicles.

3. How would the privacy issues be dealt with. GPS not only tracks location, it tracks speed. Would law enforcement be able to find speeders through auditing their GPS logs? Do all of you always stay under the speed limit at every moment? Even when passing someone? What about law enforcement investigations. If some crime occurs at x-street corner at y-time would the police be able to use the GPS system to identify all of the cars that were in the vicinity at that time? How secure would the system be? Could people hack into it in order to track others? I frankly think the privacy issues alone will kill any attempt to ever implement such a system. There are just way too many people who will object to getting government black boxes installed in their cars. I expect that an initiative to repeal such a system would be the fastest and easiest petition drive in Eyman's political career. And any politicians who voted for this nonsense would be hounded out of office.

4. How do you tax people from out of the area who are using local roads? Unless you have one giant national system, there's no way to tax people driving through from out of state. With the gas tax they pay like everyone else.

Frankly I think it's pointless to try to devise a system that taxes everyone in exact proportion to their use of the public roadways. If the objective is to raise revenue then the current gas tax is plenty good enough. Adding on a few cents/gallon raises pure revenue with no additional costs. There's no more cost effective way to raise revenue than to simply increase an existing tax for which the collection infrastructure is already in place.

If the objective is to impose additional tolls on specific sections of highway during certain times of day then that too can be accomplished using the old tried-and-true toll road technologies and fast-pass systems that read the sticker on your car window as you drive past. You don't need these everywhere, just on a few main bottleneck highways. In Seattle, express toll lanes could be put in I-5, I-90, I-405, US-99, and 520 and you'd just about cover the main bottlenecks. Few people commute any distance in Seattle without hitting one of those roads.

Posted by: Kent | Apr 28, 2005 1:58:21 PM

This is typical of an industry that is about to go bust because of changing times. In 1909 people were still building interurbans like crazy; in 1925 the railroads invested big-time in (soon to be redundant) extra capacity; in the late 40s and early 50s the railroads bought new fleets of passenger cars, still placing orders even as the first 707s flew over their heads.

It would hardly be capitalism if we didn't have one big balloon in toll road scams just before we go bust, and put the car up on blocks as a souvenir of the good times we once have had.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 28, 2005 4:01:54 PM

We could rename a road that is using this technology the "J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Parkway."

European Parliament – Luxembourg, 6 January 1998 – Directorate General for Research
Scientific and Technological Options Assessment – An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control
archived at http://www.cryptome.org/stoa-atpc.htm

Vehicle Recognition Systems
... A huge range of surveillance technologies has evolved, including the night vision goggles discussed in 3 above; parabolic microphones to detect conversations over a kilometre away (see Fig. 18); laser versions marketed by the German company PK Electronic, can pick up any conversation from a closed window in line of sight; the Danish Jai stroboscopic camera (Fig. 19) which can take hundreds of pictures in a matter of seconds and individually photograph all the participants in a demonstration or March; and the automatic vehicle recognition systems which can identify a car number plate then track the car around a city using a computerised geographic information system. (Fig.20) Such systems are now commercially available, for example, the Talon system introduced in 1994 by UK company Racal at a price of £2000 per unit. The system is trained to recognise number plates based on neural network technology developed by Cambridge Neurodynamics, and can see both night and day. Initially it has been used for traffic monitoring but its function has been adapted in recent years to cover security surveillance and has been incorporated in the "ring of steel" around London. The system can then record all the vehicles that entered or left the cordon on a particular day.
Such surveillance systems raise significant issues of accountability particularly when transferred to authoritarian regimes. The cameras ... in Tiananmen Square were sold as advanced traffic control systems by Siemens Plessey. Yet after the 1989 massacre of students, there followed a witch hunt when the authorities tortured and interrogated thousands in an effort to ferret out the subversives. The Scoot surveillance system with USA made Pelco camera were used to faithfully record the protests. the images were repeatedly broadcast over Chinese television offering a reward for information, with the result that nearly all the transgressors were identified. Again democratic accountability is only the criterion which distinguishes a modern traffic control system from an advanced dissident capture technology. Foreign companies are exporting traffic control systems to Lhasa in Tibet, yet Lhasa does not as yet have any traffic control problems. The problem here may be a culpable lack of imagination.

“that [surveillance] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology ...
“I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
-- Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), 1975, quoted in James Bamford, “The Puzzle Palace”

“If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
 - George W. Bush, December 18, 2000

March 5, 2003
KU researcher warns against potential threat of 'geoslavery'
LAWRENCE -- Jerome Dobson wants to make sure his field of research doesn't aid the greatest threat to personal freedom.
As a pioneer of geographic information systems (GIS), Dobson, a researcher at the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program at the University of Kansas, helped develop the technology that now is commonplace in government, business and practically every aspect of modern life.
Since 1975, Dobson has used GIS for a number of applications -- from conducting environmental analyses to identifying populations at risk of terrorism and natural disasters -- by combining data sets such as detailed population counts of every country in the world, terrain and nighttime lights interpreted from satellite images, road networks and elevations. Dobson, who is a professor of geography at KU, also is president of the American Geographical Society.
Unfortunately, the same technology that has so many beneficial uses also has the potential to create a highly sophisticated form of slavery, or "geoslavery," as Dobson calls it. What worries Dobson is that GIS technology easily could be used not only to spy on people but to control them as well.
"It concerns me that something I thought was wonderful has a downside that may lead to geoslavery -- the greatest threat to freedom we've ever experienced in human history," he said.
By combining GIS technology with a global positioning system (GPS) and a radio transmitter and receiver, someone easily can monitor your movements with or without your knowledge. Add to that a transponder -- either implanted into a person or in the form of a bracelet -- that sends an electric shock any time you step out of line, and that person actually can control your movements from a distance.
Sound like something from a bad sci-fi movie? Actually, several products currently on the market make this scenario possible.
"In many ways that's what we're doing with prisoners right now, but they've been through a legal process," he said.
In fact, many of the existing products are marketed to parents as a way to protect their children from kidnappers. Dobson, however, said parents should think twice before using such products.
"A lot of people think this is a way to protect their children," he said. "But most kidnappers won't have any compunction about cutting the child to remove an implant or bracelet."
Furthermore, these products rely on wireless networks, which are notoriously easy for hackers to break into, potentially turning the very products meant to protect children into fodder for tech-savvy child predators.
Dobson outlined the dangers of geoslavery in an article that appears in the most recent issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Technology and Society magazine. Peter F. Fisher, editor of the International Journal of Geographic Information Science, co-wrote the paper with Dobson. More than 375,000 scientists read the IEEE magazine.
One of the greatest dangers of geoslavery is that it doesn't apply just to governments. For example, individuals could use the technology to perpetuate various forms of slavery, from child laborers to sex slaves to a simple case of someone controlling the whereabouts of his or her spouse, Dobson said.
"Many people have concerns today about privacy but they haven't put all the pieces together and realized this means someone can actually control them -- not just know about them, but control them," Dobson said.
As the price of these products gets cheaper and cheaper, the likelihood rises that the technology will be abused, he said. To prevent this, Dobson's paper outlines a number of actions that should be taken, including revising national and international laws on incarceration, slavery, stalking and branding, and developing encryption systems that prevent criminals or countries with bad human rights records from accessing GPS signals.
Still, the first step is making people aware of the very real threat that geoslavery poses. The potential for harm is even greater in less developed nations without strong traditions of personal freedom, he said.
"We need a national dialogue on this if we're going to go into something so different from our traditional values of privacy and freedom," Dobson said. "We need to think about it very carefully and decide if this is a direction we as a society want to go."
Dobson said he doesn't consider himself a crusader. Instead, he is a scientist who is working diligently to ensure that people really understand the good and bad sides of the technology he helped create.
"There certainly are many, many good uses for the technology -- that's not the issue -- the issue is that it can be so easily misused," he said. "My role as a university professor is to alert people and make sure there is an informed debate."

Posted by: mark Robinowitz | May 17, 2005 2:49:22 PM