Amid a wave of resistance from road users, the Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system was put into effect on major expressways last Friday by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC). But the utilization rate for the ETC lanes, open only to vehicles fitted with special on-board units (OBUs), was limited.
It is estimated that the number of drivers using the new system is only around 30,000, far short of the MOTC's target. The dissatisfaction expressed through the Consumers' Foundation and through e-mail petitions has proved a setback for the system's contractor, Far Eastern Electronic Toll Collection Co (FETC). In a tug-of-war between FETC and consumers, the salient issue has been price, but the issue of the system's future has also come up and is certainly worthy of further consideration.
The e-mail petition has served its purpose by focusing attention on the high price of OBUs, and should be sufficient to convince drivers with even a limited awareness of consumer rights to oppose the implementation of the new system. FETC misjudged its market, believing that people would be willing to pay a relatively high price for quicker passage through the ETC turnpikes. Unfortunately, most drivers seem to believe that the new ETC gates are not much better than the original toll collection system.
Publicity for the ETC focuses on the fact that instead of having to stop and pay the toll, drivers can pass through the turnpike at the relatively high speed of 40kph. But there is more to the introduction of this system than just this convenience. Communications Magazine recently reported that following the current plan, a distance-based ETC system will be used by 2010.
In other words, there will be a shift from the current system, which charges a fee based on the number of times a vehicles passes through a turnpike, to a distance-based metering system. It suggests that an ETC system using infrared technology will be installed at all entrance and exit ramps, and drivers will be charged based on the distance they have traveled on the tollway.
This is clearly setting the stage for the introduction of private roads -- the current project is just the first phase of a much wider computerization of toll collection.
The introduction of distance-based ETC will have an impact on the real-estate market. A longer trip along the expressway will demand a higher toll. But under the great banner of "user pays," ETC technology is also worthy of our attention.
One option for toll payment would be the stored-value EasyCard used by the Taipei MRT. But the anonymity of such a system restricts its business functionality, or reduces its convenience. The back-end of the ETC billing system requires access to personal data so that bank accounts can be directly debited.
Cooperation with banks might even allow the OBU to be used as a means of paying for gasoline, parking fees, entrance tickets and even motel bills. Such a system would provide the requisite convenience, but the cost of introducing it would see a shift away from the anonymity of payment systems such as EasyCard.
Even if we don't mind that our level of interpersonal interaction is being reduced, we should be concerned about the personalized surveillance that new technology has made possible. Every time we pass a roadside sensor, our accounts can be debited by toll-collection corporations, and ultimately, when the technology becomes fully mature, every move we make will be recorded on the pretext of improving transportation or public order.
Eventually, not only the movements of criminal elements, but also those of absentee workers, adulterous lovers and political dissidents will all be recorded in various account-linked databanks.
In the name of efficiency and convenience, every movement would be made at the cost of leaving a record. No matter where drivers go or what they do, electronic sensors will serve a function similar to surveillance cameras and have the ability to piece together each individual's use of public space.
If they are to carry out such data-gathering activities, corporations must find ways to do so legitimately. They might ask to carry out research on the relationship between vehicle type and traffic flow, or an analysis of the relationship between a scenic area and visitors' age distribution.
Such research cannot be carried out using existing data-gathering methods, but requires the introduction of vehicle positioning systems to "personalize" each vehicle, which means treating each car as an individual rather than a unit, and then saving all sorts of information about the vehicle to create an easily accessible database.
Ultimately, the ETC system could also function as a surveillance system, which is why its development is noteworthy. Currently, consumer objections to the system's implementation have more to do with the price of OBUs and a natural unwillingness to accept change. But as it becomes more obvious that the system can be used to provide the government with accurate information about people's movements, personal freedom will become an issue.
If the ministry starts sharing its information with the National Police Agency, the car you drive will become as indivisible from your person as your fingerprint. Big Brother may soon be watching you.
Huang Hsu is an assistant researcher at the National Natural Science Museum and a doctoral candidate in architecture at University of London.
Translated by Lin Ya-ti
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