Road Pricing Technology Could Mean an ‘End to Privacy’ for UK Motorists

By Chris Summers
Chris Summers
Chris Summers
Chris Summers is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in crime, policing and the law.
May 16, 2022Updated: May 18, 2022

The Alliance of British Drivers has criticised plans for road pricing—based on “spy in the dashboard” technology—as the “end of privacy” for motorists.

In February road pricing—charging motorists for every mile they drive—was put forward by a committee of MPs as a solution to the £35 billion ($43 billion) tax gap that will be created as UK motorists gradually switch over to electric cars.

But Ian Taylor, chairman of the Alliance of British Drivers, told The Epoch Times he believes it is the “end of privacy” for motorists and he added, “If your every move is being monitored it would ultimately give the powers that be, the state or even vehicle manufacturers, the ability to control where you can and can’t go.”

“People might say that ‘you’re imagining things’ but there is such a thing as mission creep. If the technology is there, there will be someone who wants to use it. There will always be an excuse,” he said.

The £35 billion tax gap has been brought forward as an increasingly immediate priority since Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government in November 2020 committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and as motor traders are already noticing the surge in sales of electric cars.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported recently 39,315 Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) had been sold in March 2022, which was more than for the whole of 2019.

But the switch to electric vehicles, in order to meet the government’s carbon emissions target, threatens to put a huge hole in the Treasury’s finances.

Mike Williams, the Treasury’s director of business and international tax, recently told the House of Commons’ Transport Committee that Vehicle Excise Duty (car tax) and fuel duty together raise £35 billion a year, equivalent to 1.5 percent of GDP.

In February the Transport Committee published a report which called on the Department for Transport and the Treasury to set up an independent body to “examine solutions and recommend a new road charging mechanism by the end of 2022.”

‘Use Price as a Lever’

The committee’s chair, Conservative MP Huw Merriman, said: “We need to talk about road pricing. Innovative technology could deliver a national road-pricing scheme which prices up a journey based on the amount of road, and type of vehicle, used. Just like our current motoring taxes but, by using price as a lever, we can offer better prices at less congested times and have technology compare these directly to public transport alternatives.”

Epoch Times Photo
A customer prepares to charge his Tesla electric vehicle (EV) after parking in a bay for electric vehicles at a supermarket in north London on Nov. 18, 2020. (Daniel Leal-Olivas /AFP via Getty Images)

In 2007 Tony Blair’s Labour government floated the idea of road pricing but it was immediately labelled a “stealth tax” and was quietly killed off after 1.8 million signed an online petition against it.

The Alliance of British Drivers was behind that petition, with Taylor saying: “We helped kill the idea then. But it just keeps coming back and coming back. It’s like the people behind it think that drip, drip, drip, they will get their own way.”

He said, “Electric vehicle pays next to nothing in tax and that means the government is facing a dirty great big black hole in their budget and they are looking to fill it, so up pops road pricing.”

Taylor explained why the alliance was opposed to it: “It’s a tax, stealthy or not, on travel itself. We already pay a lot with fuel tax, VAT, vehicle excise duty and we don’t want to pay more but our bigger beef is that it involves satellite tracking and that will involve a wildly expensive system of bureaucracy and there is room for error.”

Is Public Opinion Shifting?

The Social Market Foundation surveyed 3,000 people across the UK in August 2021 and found that 38 percent of respondents supported road pricing as opposed to the existing tax system, and only 26 percent were opposed to it.

So how would it work?

Greener Transport Solutions, a not-for-profit, says there are three main options.

The first is a system of toll roads, monitored by automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, rather than old-fashioned toll booths.

Epoch Times Photo
Undated photo of a digital dashboard, HUD, and infotainment system in a Nissan car in Japan. (Nissan)

But while they could be introduced on motorways and some dual carriageways, they would not do anything to help urban congestion and could in fact boost “rat running”—using shortcuts through residential neighbourhoods.

The second option is a scheme introduced in the Australian state of Victoria recently where owners of electric cars have to notify the authorities of their odometer readings and are charged accordingly.

But the third, and probably most likely, option is a simple pay-as-you-go scheme, as put forward by Josh Buckland, a former adviser to Andrea Leadsom when she was Energy Secretary, in a report by conservative think tank Bright Blue.

The ‘Spy in the Dashboard’

A pay-as-you-go scheme that would involve the need for “spy in the dashboard” technology that would report not only how many miles a vehicle has driven, but also on what roads and at what time.

Several expensive, modern cars have sophisticated onboard computer systems, known as telematics, which track where the vehicle is, what speed it is driving at, and even when the windows, hood, or trunk were opened.

At the February 2020 murder trial of Terence Whall the prosecution used telematics evidence from his Land Rover Discovery to prove he was parked at the murder scene and had opened the trunk, possibly to take out his crossbow.

In the next few years more vehicles will be fitted with telematics but cheaper cars could be fitted with a dongle to allow them to comply with road pricing monitoring.

Road pricing could be a tough pill to swallow but, in a report last August, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change pointed out drivers of electric cars paid 98 percent less than petrol or diesel car owners to drive but benefited from the same road infrastructure.

The Campaign for Better Transport is currently carrying out focus groups and surveys to find out what the British public thinks of the idea of road pricing.

Their Director of Policy and Research, Silviya Barrett, said road pricing could not only address the fiscal gap faced by the government but it would also help to combat congestion and emissions.

‘Road Pricing Will Drive Behaviour Change’

Barrett told The Epoch Times on May 13: “The switch to electric vehicles alone won’t be enough to hit our carbon emission targets. We need to reduce the overall mileage driven. Road pricing could help create behaviour change and make people consider using public transport.”

The Campaign For Better Transport points out that although electric vehicles do not create the same levels of pollution as petrol and diesel cars, they do still generate particulate matter, from their tyres and brakes, and this is bad for our health.

Barrett said a pay-as-you-go scheme could be adapted to charge more for driving in urban areas and charge less for driving in rural areas or at night to take into account shift workers and other drivers who often had limited public transport alternatives.

A government spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email: “The government has committed to ensuring that motoring tax revenues keep pace with the changes brought about by the switch to electric vehicles, whilst keeping the transition affordable for consumers. We will respond to the committee’s recommendations in full in due course.”