I want to revisit the idea of road pricing that we talked about earlier this week. The proposed scheme is in the UK, but ours isn’t the only country in the Western world that’s looking at the idea. The implications for actually enjoying cars could be massive.
The idea is pretty simple, on the face of it. Instead of paying duty on fuel and paying annual road tax as well, it would all be streamlined into one payment alongside your annual insurance bill. The people who drive the most will pay the most, within a stepped system biased towards lightweight low-emitters and against larger, heavier cars. Technology would track how many miles your car has travelled in the last year and bill you for it. It would be the biggest shake-up in the cost of motoring since insurance was introduced at all and would weigh on every driver’s mind like a taxi’s meter ticking ever onward with every mile you drive, racking up a larger and larger bill.
There are several key aspects to the reality of how it would have to work: accurate mileage tracking on every car would be essential, the pricing structure would be totally subject to perspective and the sudden arrival of cheap fuel would be hugely counter-productive when it comes to persuading people to pay extra for electric cars. What would be the point if you could fill your Lotus for 30p per litre?
First, let’s talk about accurate mileage tracking. It would have to be based on fixed in-car technology to ensure it didn’t collect readings from other cars, and it would have to track each and every vehicle in the land – unless it was phased in with brand new cars only, which it wouldn’t be because the country-wide switch would happen far too slowly to be effective or practical. Imagine the admin involved in juggling two systems at once.
Every driver would be tracked, everywhere we went, and while that kind of already happens courtesy of Google and Apple, this data would be much more readily available to the authorities if they want to introduce automatic fines for speeding, for example, or to hackers who fancy finding out when owners of expensive cars are likely to be passing, in order to car-jack them. I don’t want to be watched or monitored while I’m driving, thanks. Under any circumstances.
Next, it’s the pricing structure, which the prize-winning idea we reported on says will relate to size and weight of cars as well as emissions. Our idea of fair is going to be very different to that of your typical Guardian reader, Green voter or the kind of person who puts eyelashes on their Fiat 500. Who do you prioritise? Do you penalise powerful cars because you’re an old, senile lawmaker and want to clamp down on fast motors? Do you punish any car with four-wheel drive because it’s a technological waste for 99 per cent of people 99 per cent of the time?
We know that the busiest routes would cost more, so you’re being taxed extra for driving to work. But where would you draw the weight limits between prices per mile? Do you penalise the Tesla Model X because it’s very heavy even though it’s electric? My point here is that there are so many perspectives and priorities that there is no such thing as fair. You can guarantee the system won’t favour fun cars.
Finally it’s the cheap fuel idea. At a glance it’s brilliant for people like us. If we could continue to biff around in old, fun, untracked cars taking advantage of dirt-cheap unleaded then I’m all for it, but is it really likely to happen when such a move would kill the electric car market overnight? Who would want to pay £5000-£10,000 extra for an EV or hybrid if fuel prices were reduced to a third of what they are now?
Would a government really leave that decision in the hands of the people? Dream on. You could expect higher roads pricing charges for the older, non-electrified cars we love, and so the cycle of misery would be complete. There would be no way for us to win; no way for us to regularly enjoy great cars without paying through the nose. If such an idea is seriously put on the table, we should all do everything we can to fight it.