Car meter aims to cut cost of road pricing systems: Low-tech device could reduce investment needed for congestion charging

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The Independent Online
A ROAD PRICING system that would not need massive investment in roadside equipment was launched yesterday.

The Unipass system involves vehicles having a meter, costing about pounds 45, which could be permanently or temporarily fitted since it would be easy to install or remove. The meter is charged with a pre-paid smart card and has a large screen to show the authorities that it is in use.

The development is an attempt to introduce simpler technology for road pricing than other schemes. Users would pre- pay by charging their smart card at a machine and then units would be deducted at a set rate, which could vary depending on area. The deduction could either be automatic, from a roadside beacon, or manual, with the driver having to activate the machine as the car entered the toll area. The card could also be used to pay for parking.

The Unipass meter would be much simpler because it would only need to receive signals. The large display on the windscreen would be readable by video cameras or people enforcing the system and the company suggests this would be sufficient to deter fraudulent use. Each time the pay card is inserted, the display flashes for 20 seconds to ensure that users do not attempt fraud by inserting the card if they are about to be checked.

The company stressed that the system is more flexible than electronic tags because the driver can operate it manually in areas with not enough traffic to justify the installation of electronic beacons, while it could also be used for motorway tolling. 'The system is flexible enough both to be used in a small village or town as well as for congestion charging in big cities and motorway tolls.'

Most of the systems currently being developed depend on two- way communication between cars and roadside beacons, involving cars being fitted with a transponder able to send and receive signals. Transponders would be unique to each car, to avoid fraudulent use, and would have to be permanently fitted.

Peter Mischcon, chairman of Unipass, said: 'Fitting cars with the equipment would be a major undertaking. It's been calculated that in a city like Cambridge, (where experiments with congestion charging are being carried out) the work involved would fill all the local garages for three months. And there is a real problem that occasional users would have to install expensive equipment.'

Unipass is a small company created to develop the product but faces much larger rivals in the quest to win the contract to develop the motorway charging system. Up to 30 consortia have expressed an interest in developing a system and the Department of Transport is expected to select a handful for extensive trials early next year.

The department then hopes that it will be able to specify the system it needs by early 1996 but most experts in the field consider that, even if this target were met, it is unlikely that the Government will be able to meet its target of having a motorway charging system installed by 1998 because of the technical difficulties. So far, the Government has avoided committing itself to urban congestion charging because of concern over widespread political opposition.

(Photograph omitted)