Speculations on measuring road use

Should road construction be based on road tolls and precise traffic measurements, wonders Raimo Kantola in his column.

Speculations on measuring road use

Raimo Kantola

Minister of Transport and Communications Anne Berner recently suggested that Finnish road construction could be funded using road tolls rather than tax revenue. During the ensuing debate, politicians and officials have avoided proposing an alternative in which road use would be precisely measured with the aid of ICT technology. The reason behind this is that a few years back, Jorma Ollila suggested the use of satellite radiodetermination to measure vehicle movement – this sparked off a lot of justified opposition with regard to the infringement of personal privacy.

"The use of satellite radiodetermination to measure vehicle movement has been suggested in the discussions."

Why would it be a good idea to precisely measure road use? The following reasons at least spring to mind:

  1. Road repair and construction could be planned on the basis of actual usage without having to organise separate traffic censuses.
  2. Road congestion could be monitored and statistics compiled. If this data were forwarded to navigators, they could better predict the best route. Traffic would be more evenly divided across alternative routes.

Toll charges could vary

What would be the benefit of using road tolls rather than tax revenue? I'm assuming that tolls ought to be allocated to road maintenance in full.

The benefits could include the following:

  1. The charge could depend on where the vehicle was driven. Congestion charges could be used to steer vehicles onto less-trafficked roads.
  2. Tolls could also be collected from cars with foreign licence plates. This would help to balance the competitive field between Finnish and foreign heavy goods traffic.
  3. The charge could depend on the vehicle's weight – heavy vehicles put more stress on the roads than light ones.
  4. Kilometres driven on private roads should be registered to the maintenance cooperative's account.
  5. Tolls could be increased if the vehicle is equipped with studded tyres. This is justified, as we know that it is specifically tyre studs that cause ruts. While studs do help to prevent unnecessary accidents, the ruts they cause also increase them. Every year, more people die from the particle loading caused by studs than are saved from accidents [1].

In order to assess the other potential effects of tolls, we need to know how much would be charged.

"Average toll charges
should be about 2.7 cents/km."

If we assume that a vehicle drives an average of 34 km per day, that is, about 12,300 km a year, and a billion euros must be collected from 3 million cars [2], average toll charges should be about 2.7 cents/km (about EUR 28/month, EUR 340/year). This would account for about 20 per cent of the variable costs of motoring that drivers currently pay in fuel, insurance, tyres and maintenance. (I'm assuming that variable costs are double those of fuel costs.)

If Finland was divided into three zones in which kilometre charges for a medium-weight vehicle were, for example, 5, 3 and 1.5 cents, then large distances driven in remote districts would not burn a large hole in people's wallets. Instead, they would pay more for driving in areas where land and road construction are expensive. At this cost level, it is hard to see how these charges would be a barrier to even those on a low income, assuming that vehicle tax and maybe also car tax would gradually be phased out completely [3].


Protecting personal privacy

How could we collect accurate data about road use without infringing personal privacy? There are no doubt many ways. I'll outline one here.

"How could we collect accurate
data about road use without
infringing personal privacy?"

Vehicles could be equipped with a mandatory meter costing the same as a cheap mobile phone. This would collect driving data and report it, for example, once a week after the fact, as real-time data is the worst threat to privacy.

The meters would be programmed with price zones, enabling the creation of a simple report on how many kilometres have been driven in which zone. This data could also be split into time periods for places in which charges depend on the time of day.

Road-specific data could be collected using the same meter, but as a separate sample, so that driver details could be removed before the data is recorded. If the meter were connected to a vehicle's on-board computer, it could use data collected by the vehicle's sensors to report on the condition of roads, and also forward this information to maintenance. To ensure adequate protection of personal privacy, measurement data and its use could be governed by a decree.

New vehicles would have an integrated meter. Owners of older vehicles would have to buy a separate meter or, if they choose to drive without a meter, would have to pay slightly higher charges based on an imprecise calculation method. Many such methods have been presented, so I won't go into them here.


A longer-term solution?

How can you ensure that drivers won't bypass meter reports? Firstly, the device would contain a security module to prevent anyone from updating its software using deceptive applications. Secondly, speed cameras and a suitable number of lamp posts or the like could be equipped with radar and CCTV stations that would automatically monitor traffic, either continually or from time to time. If a car without a functional meter were to drive past one of these stations, a warning would drop through the offender's letterbox a few days later. The third such warning would be accompanied by a fine. Meters could also be checked during mandatory vehicle inspections.

"Cars will start driving themselves in the next 5–20 years. These cars will definitely have a constant connection to some cloud."

When you think about it, it's worth assuming that cars will start driving themselves in the next 5–20 years. These cars will definitely have a constant connection to some cloud, if not several. Being electric, the majority of these vehicles will not generate fuel tax revenue. So it's no wonder that the government is wondering how to modernise its operating methods. Just because something is new, doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it. If tolls lead to better roads that are safer to drive on, maybe that's something we should support?

Berner also suggested privatising Finland's roads and having private operators administer the charges. This juxtaposing of charges versus taxes is a separate issue that I won't address here. Another question is when to introduce the new system: considering the electrification of traffic, is now the time, or should we wait another 5–10 years?

[1] 1,800 annual deaths from particle loading, 229 deaths and over 500 people seriously injured in traffic accidents in 2014.
[2] 3.7 million vehicles in the motor register at the end of 2014.
[3] All figures are approximates.


Raimo Kantola

Raimo Kantola
The author is a Professor
in the Department of Communications and
Networking at Aalto University.

Columns represent the author's own views.

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