Future Tense

Singapore Wants to Use Satellites to Collect Drivers’ Tolls. Will the U.S. Follow?

Satellite road pricing could make toll booths—like these in Oakland, California—obsolete.  

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Traffic is an abomination. About 1.3 million die in motor vehicle accidents each year worldwide,  dozens of psychology studies point to commute times as the most significant predictor of unhappiness, and transportation is a significant driver (no pun intended) of all sorts of air pollution—indeed, it accounts for 70 percent of American oil consumption. The scourge of traffic explains at least half the boosterism surrounding Tesla and Google’s autonomous cars—who needs to honk horns if cars can just bicker in binary?

But important high-tech transportation developments are often more humdrum than driverless vehicles. For example, Singapore is moving forward with a plan to implement satellite road pricing, a wireless tolling plan that charges vehicles for distance traveled rather than passes through a toll booth. Singapore plans to launch its satellite road pricing system in 2020 at a cost of $395 million. The technology requires vehicles to carry tracking devices that charge tolls to citizens’ accounts directly, thereby rendering physical toll booths useless, freeing up road space and maintenance costs. The tracking devices can be easily configured to set up pay for parking systems, as well as to beam traffic updates or route guidance to citizens via a mobile app or vehicle console. E-ZPass, a widely used American electronic toll-payment device you might have on your dashboard, is the germ of satellite road pricing; E-ZPass removed the need to drop coins in a toll booth, while satellite road pricing makes it unnecessary to pass through a booth at all.

Road pricing, as a general concept, is ostensibly about reducing traffic congestion: Setting a market price for public roads ensures demand (cars on the road) is responsive to the set supply (lanes on the highway). Citizens will only drive if the toll matches or is less than their willingness to pay—otherwise, they’ll turn to public transportation or teleworking, or they’ll put off their trip until the price falls, thereby reducing congestion. Road pricing also redirects motorists to longer but cheaper and less congested routes, and some models give motorists discounts when they choose such alternatives. Tolls’ ability to adjust by the hour to traffic patterns more efficiently reduces congestion than other methods, like carpool lanes, which can’t easily and quickly adapt. Road pricing has successfully reduced congestion in cities like London, and environmentalists often like the policy because it discourages driving and offsets public transportation costs.

With satellites, however, road pricing becomes far more efficient, as it tracks congestion in real-time. But while satellite road pricing has the potential to dramatically reduce traffic congestion and raise revenue, it’s proven politically infeasible in many cities, like New York and Edinburgh—it’s “the idea that economists love, but that ordinary people hate.” Politicians often pilot and launch satellite road pricing incrementally and quietly, “for fear of being labelled anti-car.” Now with satellites in the mix, privacy implications have left many municipalities even more wary of adoption.

Satellite road pricing has been successfully trialed in the European Union, a region most sensitive to privacy concerns. But in a post-Snowden and post-OPM hack world, public confidence in the government’s ability to protect data has eroded. The transition from physical booths to connected devices opens satellite road pricing systems to hacking, from external sources, perhaps seeking to follow a vehicle, from drivers themselves, who can jam tracking devices with tools that cost about $200, and from governments, who might use the system for unwarranted surveillance, a concern publicly expressed by Singapore’s opposition government. The city’s response to these concerns has been claims that the data will be “aggregated and anonymized,” a reply that oversimplifies the nature of data protection. Who or what will anonymize the data, and when will that occur in the process? How can motorists be charged for their driving without their data being tagged to their identity? What policies will be put in place to ensure data is protected? Will other government agencies have access to the back end?

If satellite road pricing is to come to the United States, it will have to reckon with the many privacy concerns believed of and raised over E-ZPass. On television, law enforcement characters in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit have used E-ZPass records to corroborate suspects’ stories. In real life, E-ZPass records are used to corroborate the claims of individuals who deny New York City residency to avoid paying the city’s steep income tax. And in 2015, the New York Civil Liberties Union, in partnership with a privacy activist known as “Puking Monkey,” discovered that E-ZPasses were tracked at places without visible toll cameras across New York City. The city responded that the additional E-ZPass readers were used in traffic management studies, but at the very least, motorists’ awareness of their participation in these studies was previously unknown. Reservations about data collected by E-ZPass would surely be exacerbated in a satellite road pricing context—E-ZPass only documents vehicles when they’re in the presence of readers, while satellites could presumably track a vehicle at all times, anywhere on the road.

The privacy debate over satellite road pricing overlays similar concerns about cars connected to any online network, especially driverless cars that rely on the network to, well, drive. Of course, there will be little need for congestion reduction in a world where driverless cars can automatically reroute. But it’s worth noting that much of the debate around transportation innovation is, at heart, about one question: How does one cede control in an activity, like driving, that has always been micromanaged by the self? Satellite road pricing won’t reduce commuting stress if tolls only make us angrier.