Charlie's Diary

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Tue, 14 Jun 2005

Stupid, stupid

There are days when I get out of bed, look at the news, and conclude that our political lords and masters are, to put it bluntly, as dumb as a sack full of hammers. (Either that or they're technologically iliterate – or both.) These days I try not to blow my top over stupid politics, at least not in public; but sometimes you've just got to bite the fat wriggly bait.

Today, the UK government has adopted two policies that – among a galaxy of other stupid policies – qualify as pure supernova flashes of negative brilliance. They are the National ID Card and Alistair Darling's pay-as-you-drive road pricing scheme. These proposals are sinkholes of pure stupidity for two reasons. Firstly, they are fundamentally dishonest insofar as they are presented as solutions to a problem that doesn't actually exist – they solve problems, but not ones that ministers are willing to talk about in public. Secondly, they don't work. They're technological snake-oil. They can try to make them work – at a cost of many billions of pounds each – but in the end the countermeasures and ramifying complexity of enforcement will kill them stone dead. And only a technological illiterate – or a government minister – could love them.

The National ID Card is a pet hate of mine, but I'm not going to bang on about it just now because the Home Office has successfully started the public debate by tarring all opponents as woolly-headed liberals who are soft on terrorism and illegal immigration. I'll plead guilty to being a woolly liberal, but I think you'll agree I'm on firmer ground if I take an axe to the initiative where they haven't yet succeeded in painting me as a woolly-headed liberal who's soft on traffic jams.

So: pay-as-you-go road pricing as a solution to congested roads. Good idea, or something stupid?

Transport Secretary Darling's proposal sounds superficially plausible at first, if you're the kind of gullible creature who believes technology can fix all problems – a science fiction writer, for example. Britain has a problem: too many cars on the roads. The government has unsuccessfully tried to control this by introducing price signals to reduce demand, i.e. by taxing petrol until it costs roughly £4.50 per gallon at the pump (roughly three to four times what it is in the USA, for example). They discovered the hard way that if they push it too far, they'll generate a campaign of civil disobedience. Last time, truckers and campaigners nearly shut down the nation's oil refineries by blockading them with their vehicles – and the press and media by and large applauded these plucky individualists for standing up to the taxation-mad treasury.

Words fail me for describing the stupidity of this blockade, by the way. I'm not normally a law and order fanatic, but if I'd been running the Home Office I would have been very tempted to clap the lot of 'em in leg-irons and haul them off to prison under terrorism charges. Playing with fire barely begins to explain the lethal danger that a fuel blockade presents to a modern economy. Our supermarkets as well as our factories now run on just-in-time supply chains; they're no more than 48 hours away from bare shelves. If those idiots had succeeded in shutting off the fuel supply to the road haulage industry for just 72 hours, we'd have been well on the way to a state of emergency and riots on the streets of all our major cities. If Al Qaida were serious and intelligent (as opposed to murderous clowns) they'd just get their friends jobs in the haulage industry and join the fuel protestors.

As you can imagine, the 2000 fuel blockade got the government's attention. Trouble is, because the protestors actually had public support – because, to a short-sighted and ill-informed public, campaigning for cheaper gas is of course a good thing, even if you go about it by trying to bring about the collapse of civilization – continuing to try to control traffic congestion by purely fiscal tactics was no longer seen as workable. Yet if our roads succumb to gridlock, that's potentially every bit as devastating as a refinery blockade. We're desperately dependent on smooth-running transport, in a way that our predecessors weren't, and because our rail freight infrastructure is a shadow of its former self, transport means roads.

Hence the Darling proposal. In the Radiant Future, all cars and trucks will come with a Black Box. The miraculous tamper-proof black box will use a GPS receiver – okay, a Galileo receiver, otherwise it would need differential GPS and be prone to crashing the Treasury's money pipe whenever the Pentagon got its knickers in a twist and shut down the civilian unencrypted signals – to locate the vehicle at all times to within a couple of metres. The vehicle will have a database of the national road network. So far so good; you can buy a PDA with a GPS unit and a road atlas built-in for under £500, so this side of the tech isn't obviously broken.

What the DoT want to do, though, is to price road usage. Say you're wanting to use the M25 motorway or Sphagetti Junction at rush hour. Obviously, this will cause congestion – so your black box will add a high per-mile charge to your monthly road usage bill. Alternatively you can go via a winding country lane that nobody ever uses and pay less. The black boxes will be inspected annually and tampering with or disabling one will be a crime.

First problem: this is going to displace traffic from high-capacity motorways onto rural and urban rat-runs. Unless there's some way of updating the black boxes with road prices established in real time on the basis of current traffic densities, some cheap roads are going to end up gridlocked all the time while the expensive ones are going to run at well under capacity.

Second problem: the Chelsea Tractor (aka SUV or big-ass imported American Lifestyle Truck) is currently penalized by paying more for fuel. Darling has (unwisely) already committed to reducing fuel duty. Which means, in effect, he's introducing a subsidy for huge gas-guzzlers.

But let's say problems #1 and #2 can be finessed; in the case of #1, by dynamically re-weighting the road costs on a daily basis and broadcasting them to the automotive black boxes (say, via a DAB radio channel), or in the case of #2 by taxing big engine blocks. We are then left with a fundamental technology problem. Which is this: have you ever tried to navigate a city via GPS?

GPS or Galileo cluster satellites aren't magic compass pixie dust sprinklers. They broadcast a signal which, by the time it reaches ground level, is pathetically faint. Worse: the UK is damn close to the 60th parallel. I live in Edinburgh, fifty miles north of Moscow. GPS coverage is patchy to non-existent in the city centre because the satellites mostly orbit south of 60o and the signals are blocked by three-story apartment buildings, never mind skyscrapers. They're going to have to put a hell of a lot of high-power satellites into highly inclined orbits if they want to cover the UK adeqautely.

And even then, the coverage at ground level is weak. The signal strength is tiny, because the satellites orbit hundreds of miles up and have less than a hundredth of the broadcast power of a typical local radio station. Your mobile phone puts out a signal hundreds of times stronger.

Now, imagine you want to spoof your black box so that (a) you don't pay any road usage tax (or pay less), or because (b) you're a paranoid who thinks the government is keeping an eye on where you're going.

I'd like you to imagine another kind of black box, probably similar in appearance to a present day police radar detector. You buy it (illegally) and put it in your car. It has three satellite boxes which you stick in your engine compartment and under the driver's seat and in the boot. It's your PDA with road atlas, and the three satellite boxes are just that – low-powered transmitters that send out an unencrypted Galileo signal that is undetectable more than a couple of metres from your car but is (inside the vehicle) strong enough to swamp the distant feeble witterings of the satellite cluster. These signals stay in the same place. They tell the black box, "look! you're stationary!" Hey presto, you're driving tax-free.

Now, obviously the Department of Transport will take a dim view of this. So the first sign of smart countermeasures arrive in the black boxes a year or so later: if the wheels turn and the car doesn't move for more than the five minutes or so you could expect for a vehicle inspection on a rolling road, you're committing an offense.

The obvious countermeasure to that is that your black box can itself contain a genuine Galileo receiver – one that can tell the difference between its own dummy fake satellites and the real thing. (After all, it's telling the fakes what signals to send.) It tracks your road usage, and in real time plots a route that is optimized for cost and vaguely parallels your actual path. You pay tax, but at the minimum (not the maximum) rate.

If this sounds esoteric or fantastic, you haven't been paying attention to the way technology develops. This is a neat cognitive radio business start-up opportunity for someone living outside the UK to exploit. It can, of course, be defeated – but not trivially. And that's the point: the government need to be able to track thirty million vehicles to make this foolish, foolish scheme work. The cost of the technology to fool the black boxes is currently on the order of £2000 for the hardware – plus some work by a programmer who knows what he's doing – but in principle I see no reason why a black box jammer can't be built for under fifty quid, and a more sophisticated black box route-faker should be doable for well under five hundred. And they're portable and non-invasive, so if you remember to take them with you when you get out of your car the cops or the vehicle inspectors won't be able to see a thing.

The real fun happens, of course, when smartphones converge with CR technology. Right now, my Treo has two radios: a GSM stage working at four frequency bands, and Bluetooth at 2.4GHz. My PDA also has two radios – Bluetooth and 802.11b. Next-gen phones have all of the above and maybe more besides; FireWireless, Wireless USB, Bluetooth 1.1/2.0, 802.11a/g, WiMAX, and so on. The cost savings to be made by replacing the whole shooting match with a decent DSP and DAC and doing the protocol conversion entirely in software is creeping up and the power consumption of phone-grade RISC processors is creeping down and when the two meet in the middle, your mobile smartphone/PDA will be a desert topping and a floorwax, and (for the cost of a dodgy software download) a road pricing Black Box spoofer/jammer to boot.

So. Pay-as-you-go road pricing. Firstly, we have to retrofit 30 million vehicles with a tamper-proof electronics suite that includes a GPS receiver and a mobile phone and smartcard reader (for paying the tax). Secondly, we give up the basic right to travel anonymously – a corollary of the basic human right to free public assembly. (All so that the government can try to make an end run around an extremely stupid and damaging form of civil disobedience practiced by greedy arseholes who want cheap fuel and damn the costs to society as a whole.) And does it work? Does it buggery. It's going to run into the usual government IT project overruns, and then the black box hackers are going to get rich. Darling will be long-gone by the time the shit hits the fan, and we're going to be left forking out of our wallets to cover the cost. The UK still won't have a viable transport infrastructure. And all because it's politically inexpedient – read: unpopular – to deal with the fuel tax protestors in the manner they so richly deserve.

[Discuss politics]

posted at: 15:15 | path: /politics | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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