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By Jack Ganssle

Drive in London? Dig out your wallet.

Published 2/13/03

A 1971 business trip at age 19 took me to England for the first time. Coming from the land of the gas-guzzler, I was astonished to find that the entire populous drove tiny cars. VW Beetles looked huge. Gas was very expensive then as it is now, mostly due to taxes added to reduce automobile use and improve mass transit.

February 17 London implements another tax (http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/congestion/) designed to keep cars off the roads, or at least out of the central part of town. From 7 AM till 6:30 PM, all vehicles operating inside the Inner Ring Road (an area comprising 8 square miles of central London) will be required to pay 5 pounds per day. That's right - about 8 bucks every day you drive in that part of the city. Plus parking. Plus $5/gallon for petrol. The fee rises to 10 if payment isn't made by 10PM the evening of the drive. Thanks to the magic of embedded systems coupled to a large .NET application Londoners now have an even more compelling reason to join the swarms of commuters on the packed but efficient Underground.

Apparently traffic speeds in this section of town have fallen to an average of 3 MPH during peak hours. The city council hopes the new rules will cut congestion by 15% and raise 130 million per year for mass transit improvements.

The cops won't enforce this; there are neither special passes nor electronic transducers. Instead 900 cameras positioned at 230 points around the city will capture 90% of all license plates, firmware translating the video to alphanumerics checked against a database.

Drivers may pay the fee via telephone, a web site, or in person at one of 9000 retail outfits. Officials expect 100,000 payment phone calls per day. I expect most of these will be from automotive cell users, perhaps leading to more accidents and congestion. At the least this is surely a boon to the cellular providers. Another fascinating payment scheme uses text messaging, a technology embraced much more wholeheartedly across the Pond than here in the States. The thought of composing and sending a text message while behind the wheel is terrifying; but with traffic crawling at 3 MPH perhaps this isn't such a problem after all.

All vehicles moving in the zone, not just those crossing the boundary road, are subject to the tax and to camera-monitored enforcement. There are exemptions for fuel-efficient cars like hybrids. Commuters will have cheaper and easier options, the best deal being a yearly pass for 1250 ($2000).

The program has been in development for some years, but eerily parallels the US's Total Information Awareness (TIA) (http://www.darpa.mil/iao/TIASystems.htm) initiative mandated as part of the new security protocols. TIA promises to tie all information sources into a central database. The courts seem reluctant to monitor our email - at least for now - but presumably our movements will be tracked via EZPASS transponders, cell phone transmissions, and traffic cameras. I had no idea the technology to quickly and automatically read license plates is so advanced; surely the intelligence community will harness this capability.

During the Nixon era the CIA was blasted for spying on citizens. The outrage was both philosophical and legal, as the agency has no mandate to operate inside the country. Today's threat-laden climate has swept the reforms enacted back then out the door.

TIA really bugs me. But in London they've found a fascinating use for similar technology. Pollution, congestion and energy needs will be reduced by making driving financially painful. A rather draconian "big-brother" automated computer system enforces compliance. Though it remains to be seen how well such a complex system will work, I think it's a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps American cities will someday rent access to the TIA database for similar reasons.

And who knows? TIA could become a Federal profit center. I bet the Direct Marketing Association (http://www.the-dma.org/) would love access, too. I'm dreading the day my phone rings and an automaton tells me that if I take the next exit, well, there's a sale on shoes at Pennys.