After the successful start of Germany's long troubled highway toll system for heavy commercial trucks, suggestions are already being made to expand the satellite-based technology to surface streets and normal cars.
Coming soon to a car near you?
Following a number of mishaps, Germany's high-tech toll system finally went into operation this week.
Held up for 16 months, the delay cost the German government billions in lost revenues. But there were no major glitches on the country's autobahns as had been feared, encouraging some politicians to consider how to widen the system's reach.
Bavarian Interior Minister Günther Beckstein this week asked the federal government to collect the truck toll on some non-highway streets that could be possibly used by drivers to avoid paying the levy. "The introduction of the toll cannot be at the expense of residents on national roadways and of traffic safety," Beckstein said according to German news agency DPA.
Technically, there is nothing standing in the way of expanding the satellite toll system to other streets -- at least not eventually. Currently the system is running on a slimmed-down version of the software that connects the trucks' onboard units to the central computers of operator Toll Collect.
The repeated delays were a major embarrassment for Toll Collect -- the consortium made up of automaker DaimlerChrysler, Deutsche Telekom and French motorway operator Cofiroute. But the successful start this year has opened the door to future possibilities for the pioneering system. That could include levying a toll on the streets as suggested by Beckstein, as well as charging normal cars for using the autobahn.
The system uses GPS technology to send an SMS via Germany's GSM mobile telephone network to locate a vehicle. That works even at speeds of 200 kilometers (124.27 miles) per hour while changing lanes. A user is only charged for the exact distance driven.
"They picked the Toll Collect system exactly because it is a very flexible one," Markus Friedrich from the Institute for Street and Traffic Studies at the University of Stuttgart told German ARD television. "At any time it can be expanded to other parts of the street network or the price can be changed easily."
No one is expecting the German government to begin pushing for an auto toll soon. But, with the Transport Ministry strapped for cash and road projects suffering accordingly, some experts believe it is only a matter of time.
"I think the toll for cars will come quickly simply due to financial reasons," Werner Rothengatter from the University of Karlsruhe said. An advisor to the Transport Ministry, he said he expected the issue would be raised shortly after the next general election in 2006. Rothengatter added that car owners could be co-opted to support the toll by offering compensation in the way of lower auto taxes.
The German government expects about €2.5 billion ($3.30 billion) in truck toll revenues each year. But Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement also hopes the state-of-the-art system will be an export hit doing away with the old-fashioned booths that still cause traffic congestions in many other European countries.
On Thursday, the Czech Transport Ministry said it planned to introduce a similar electronic toll system for trucks on the country's highways, possibly by the end of the year.