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For whom the Galileo tolls. 20/4/2004
The collapse of the satellite-based tolling project in Germany in mid-February, may have been a blow to German national pride and may even have seemed to have put back the cause of satellite-based traffic management. Certainly the threatened withdrawal of the contract from the Toll Collect consortium was blamed by the German Chancellor, not on politics but on the supposed inability of the technology to perform in the electronic tolling arena and on problems with supplies. But whatever the effect of the headline-grabbing news on the minds of the general public, the use of satellites as a means of improving road safety and introducing an alternative technology for wide-area tolling continues to forge ahead.

Some years ago, before the removal of the artificially imposed degradation of the GPS signals by the American Department of Defense, a number of organisations had produced enabling technology that was able to largely nullify the so-called Selective Availability, signal degrading system. The technique by which this was achieved was known as DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) which, in essence relied on a number of ground stations whose precise position was known. Signals from the GPS satellites would then be corrected on the basis of the known error and passed on to the end-user. This later gave way to EGNOS (European Geostationary Overlay System) which first made its appearance around a decade ago, relying on ranging signals provided by the 3nd generation Inmarsat satellites to correct the Selective Availability in the GPS signals.

And it is to EGNOS, a system developed by the European Space Agency, the EC and Eurocontrol, that the EC is now turning for the next generation of wide-area traffic management systems - at least in the short term. A project, known as ARMAS (Active Road Management Assisted by Satellite), is currently under development in Portugal and is intended to make extensive use of the EGNOS signals as a staging post on the way to Galileo. Sited on the Vasco de Gama bridge over the Tagus river, the 6th Framework ARMAS project is being led by the European Space Agency in partnership with Portuguese companies Skysoft and INOV. Support for the project is also coming from Auto-Estrades do Atlântico and Lusoponte.

Ostensibly focussed on the need to reduce road casualties, there is little doubt that the driving motivation behind the project is the introduction of ETC systems throughout the European Union from 2010, both as a means of controlling access to the road network and generating revenue. Due to begin trials later this year, ARMAS will initially receive GPS signals via EGNOS, to test the ability of the technology to cope with the concept of open-road tolling. Provided these are satisfactory, the system will migrate to Galileo from around 2010, two years after the latter's signals are expected to have become operational in 2008.

"Virtual tolling is a major step for implementing a Europe-wide electronic tolling system that allows citizens to travel without physical barriers inside the European Union." says a statement from the European Space Agency, about the ARMAS project.

On-board telematics units, which are confidently expected to become OEM equipment in new vehicles over the next few years, will not only deal with the real-time positioning of vehicles for tolling purposes but will be expected to send and receive information about conditions on the route, according to the ARMAS statement. There are also plans to include the ability to detect and avoid obstacles in the roadway and, if the political will exists, implement ISA (Intelligent Speed Adaptation).

There is, however, still some way to go. Galileo, upon whose successful launch, the future development of ARMAS is predicated, is still in the early stages of its development. The first two of its satellites were launched in July last year while in February this year, agreement was reached on interoperability with the American GPS system. The European Commission is currently in the process of short-listing the consortia, one of whom will eventually be granted the concession to run the Galileo system. But there is still no guarantee that member states of the European Union will continue to support the project. It has already had something of a bumpy ride and must be seen to succeed in the harsh climate of the marketplace if it is to have a future.

So far as that goes, revenue from road traffic applications will not be the only source of income for Galileo but it is likely to be significant. This will be particularly true, if the decision is made to implement national distance-based road-user charging for all vehicles at some point in the future. Perhaps the Commission had the future of Galileo in mind when it published its draft Directive on electronic road-user charging at the end of April last year.

Yet even assuming the successful launch of the Galileo system, there will be many who would question the wisdom of imposing a satellite-based system of ETC (electronic tolling collection) on a Europe, already widely served by a highly successful series of DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communications) equipped systems of tolling. Evidence of this opposition was clear, following the publication of the draft Directive, and is unlikely to abate with the passage of time. France, Austria, Italy, Norway and other member states have all expressed their opposition to the idea of an imposed solution which does not include the use of DSRC.

The problem here, is that the opposition to the imposition of a GNSS/GPRS (Global Navigation Satellite System/General Packet Radio System) is largely self-serving. A great deal of money has been invested by individual companies into DSRC systems and the prospect of losing their investment is not one they relish. Similar reasons could probably be applied to the 10 year failure of CEN (Comité Europeén de Normalisation) to arrive at a European standard for the DSRC protocol. It is difficult at this stage in the long process towards national or even pan-European, systems of distance-based charging to see the probable outcome in the struggle between the competing technologies. But in a sense, so far as the Portuguese ARMAS project is concerned, the outcome of such distant decisions is irrelevant. The purpose of ARMAS is to demonstrate the art of the possible; to show what can be achieved for road-tolling, traffic management and improved road safety through the use of EGNOS and eventually Galileo. If for no other reason, it is worth serious study.

For further information, contact:
1. Patrick McDougal of Inmarsat, 99 City Road, London, EC1Y 1AX. Tel: #44 20 7728 1560 2. Richard Bryce, CEO, Mapflow, Dublin. Tel: #353 1634 1430
 
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