Road pricing-development drives politicians towards making uncomfortable right moves
Sidst opdateret: Tuesday, 18. February 2014 - 13:08 / By Marc Prosser
The Danish debate on road pricing is heating up, with a broad spectre of organisations, including the Danish Society of Engineers, IDA, criticising politicians for their lethargic lack of action. Politicians view road pricing as a hot potato and promise that it will be implemented when the technology is ready – which, judging on a new Danish patent, is right now.
Imagine for a second that Danish cars are like taxis. They all have the meter running, all the time, no matter where they are. Whether a car is sitting in the driveway, ambling along an empty motorway or clogging up city centre traffic during rush hour, the car’s meter keeps ticking at the exact same rate.
At present, that is more or less how car taxes in Denmark work. However, various organisations and interest organisations, as well as large parts of the population, are pushing reluctant Danish politicians towards introducing road pricing as a more modern – and fairer - way of calculating how much people should pay, based on when, where and how much they use their vehicles.
Much of the debate on road pricing is about technology. While politicians claim that the technology needed to introduce road pricing is not ready yet, organisations across the board say it is.
“That argument is factually untrue,” Frida Frost, President of the Danish Society of Engineers, IDA, says – and a new Danish patent seems to back up her point of view.
Paying the price of traffic
At first glance, the Danish organisations in favour of road pricing seem like unlikely bedfellows and include industry and business representatives as well as environmental NGO’s like Greenpeace.
For industry representatives, the main point is that road pricing will increase Danish competitiveness and efficiency. They point to the fact that Danes wasted more than 20 million hours in traffic during 2013 alone.
The NGOs’ main arguments are that cars stuck in traffic also spend more time on the roads with their engines running, leading to larger CO2-emissions from traffic. Traffic jams also affect passing pedestrians and cyclists, who inhale increased levels of CO2 and other emitted gasses and particles, leading to knock-on health issues and road pricing could lead people towards switching from cars to public transportation.
Political hot potato
Danish politicians across the political spectrum seem to view the issue of road pricing as a political hot potato, which involves getting in the car owner’s bad books for seeming to make them pay more for using their vehicles than they already do. Put simply, changing the current system could lead to a loss of votes.
One of the main arguments, which has been used repeatedly by various ministers, is that road pricing will be introduced when the technology is ready.
As the recent Minister for Trade and Investment, Pia Olsen Dyhr, summed it up:
“It’s our opinion that it is still too early to work (continuously) on road pricing.”
However, many organisations, including the Danish Society of Engineers, IDA, do not agree.
IDA is concerned that Danish companies – as well as Denmark on a whole - are losing out, while the politicians twiddle their thumbs and remain unwilling to make unpopular choices. IDA President Frida Frost points out that recent Government reports all point to the same conclusion: road pricing will lower congestion and reduce CO2-emissions, making Denmark healthier as well as more competitive.
“Waiting with introducing road pricing is bad for our mobility, and will ultimately be costly to our society. For the price of a couple of kilometres of motorway we could start tests of a technology that can lead to benefits for everyone,” Frida Frost says.
Danish patent long time coming
A recent patent awarded to the Danish company Cartime Technologies seems to back up Frida Frost’s arguments.
At the beginning of the century, Cartime founder Ib Haaning Høj decided to take a closer look at road pricing.
"The first problem for a national road pricing system in Denmark is that it’s illegal to track people here,” he explains.
“So my initial idea was to switch the ID from the car owner to the car. In my system, I do not care about who is driving the car – that is something the owner has to be responsible for. I’m focused on where a car is going and when it’s going there.”
Data about the vehicle’s location is sent to a server, which tracks its movements. Using software that is not yet fully developed, a given vehicle's road fees can be calculated based on its movements. This calculation can potentially factor in things if the vehicle is driving around in rush hour, what area it is driving through and what kind of car it is (CO2-emission, weight, etc.).
Technological edge heads abroad
Cartime Technologies applied for their patent back in 2004, and received it towards the end of 2013. They are currently negotiating with various American investors, with ties to major tech-companies, about developing the needed road pricing software.
While he is happy for the interest, Ib Haaning Høj is also slightly annoyed that he has had to go across the Atlantic to find potential partners.
“We worked with groups from DTU Space and other engineer departments in Denmark, and they had some really good input and ideas, but several times we have also run into road blocks in relation to working with public institutions like universities. We pride ourselves on being an innovative country, and I think that is true. However, sometime Danes are too slow to get of their….shall I say get out of their chairs, and act in regards to technologies that can give us a first mover advantage over other countries, and thereby generate jobs. I think that this applies to companies and politicians alike,” he says.
Since obtaining the new patent, several international companies, as well as industry experts have stated that in their view the patent should perhaps not have been awarded – primarily because most of the technology it relies on is well-known and is today widely used in other industries.