Opportunity, not threat. Railfuture suggests that there is a way of making road user charging politically acceptable. Appropriate branding for an HGV. Photo by Richard Says under <creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/> via Flickr.
Everyone recognises that the widespread adoption of electric vehicles at the scale and rate required to hit net-zero will open up a gaping chasm in road funding.
Politicians are generally too scared to even think, let alone talk publicly about road user charging (RUC) because it’s perceived as too politically toxic.
This article is a thought experiment suggesting that RUC of HGVs would be an appropriate way to trial both regulatory and technical approaches to RUC to determine the edges of what may be politically acceptable to private motor vehicles in the future, and be a mechanism to overcome fear barriers that potential adopters face – opening up the Overton window (the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time) on the topic.
We need to acknowledge that we already have RUC – it’s largely levied by consumption based on fuel duty, and for HGVs a relatively light coupling to the amount of pavement (the technical term for the road surface and foundation, not a British sidewalk) wear via axle weights.
Describing our existing package of duties and levies as a somewhat haphazard form of RUC is a way to introduce RUC into the lexicon without immediately sparking such a high degree of fear.
There is enough taxation ‘meat’ in HGV vehicle taxation and levies to alter the structure of the existing taxes to a meaningful degree – without initially touching fuel duty. There is also enough ‘meat’ to create a situation where there are both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from a new RUC system, not everyone ‘loses’.
The factors it is currently based on include maximum gross weight, number of axles, whether the suspension is 'pavement friendly', and engine emissions class - see rates of vehicle tax.
Any national RUC would be huge in scope, and any large IT system is difficult to get completely right first time.
For both political and technical reasons starting with a smaller group is desirable, allowing more potential to fail fast and fix fast.
Some haulage consumers have a choice of modes that they can use for their delivery needs, and choice of landing points within the UK relative to the UK destination of goods. Forecasting by MDSTransmodal highlights that there is a huge variation in the potential demand for rail freight dependent on whether the negative externalities of HGV vs rail are fully priced into the basket of taxation on different modes - see the Network Rail rail freight forecast scenarios.
An increasing number of local authorities are realising that in order to meet a range of policy goals we need to see an overall reduction in vehicle mileage, but don't know where to politically begin with such conversations, so the Overton window is firmly closed.
While there would be a lot of noise generated by the haulage sector, since the costs of haulage are not directly paid by voters, it is reasonable to suggest that by comparison with private car drivers, the HGV sector is from a political perspective a far more palatable option.
Hence we suggest that the HGV sector is the right place to experiment with RUC, both technically and politically.
Start as an 'opt-in', where the haulier can choose to be taxed under the current regime or the new regime, with a clear medium-term timeline as to when current system will be phased out.
New system is a complete replacement for all existing HGV related taxes (apart from fuel duty)
User choice on how much data they share - more data shared should lead to cheaper costs.
RAC research highlighted that a degree of user choice was important in improving acceptability.
No miles, no money
The new system should be more consumption based than current system - do zero miles, pay zero tax.
- this can be sold as a win to the vintage / heritage / museum sector.
- an intuitively ‘fairer’ element of the new charging regime.
Pay for potholes
HGVs cause far more pavement wear than lighter vehicles, this is well evidenced and understood after extensive testing in the USA in the 1960s.
It is currently partially dealt with via differential rates based on nominal maximum axle loading and whether the suspension is 'road friendly'.
Should make this a far bigger component of tax than currently - which is a way to sell the concept to both private motorists and local authorities.
In particular, local roads are constructed to a lower standard than the Strategic Road Network (SRN), so the cost per mile of road surface wear is much higher on local roads than the SRN. A fiscal incentive to minimise mileage on local roads would reduce both collision rates and local authority road maintenance costs.
Failure vs fraud
Equipment fails, and we need to reduce the fear factor (especially in the early days) that a genuine equipment failure will result in a punitive charge - equally any consumption based charge will be a far more tempting target for fraud - so fraud detection and punitive charging for such fraud should be a consideration in regulation and technical development.
Experience from the smart meter sector and how it has been deployed could be useful.
Vehicles are optionally tracked with a 'black box'. Encourage insurance industry to offer cheaper insurance for vehicles fitted with and willing to share ‘black box’ data. It will be far more acceptable for HGVs to be tracked than private cars – but tracking HGVs gets people more familiar with the potential benefits that it can bring.
Data from black boxes correlated with ANPR data to detect fraud. (maybe on a sample / spot check basis rather than exhaustive).
There should be a roadside / remote feature to allow the roadside equipment to trigger a partial download of a sample of data on passing vehicles.
User should be able to choose how much data is shared
- mileage only
- mileage and location
- mileage and location and time of day + day of week
- mileage + location + date/time of journey
- mileage + location + date/time of journey + overall vehicle weight
- mileage + location + date/time of journey + individual axle weight
Probably don't want to introduce all these at once, start with the easy ones and then expand - but lay out the pathway to industry well in advance.
- users that have a higher proportion of empty running miles might find options 5 and 6 quite an attractive prospect.
- mileage only will make some (relatively harsh) assumptions about mixture of SRN vs local roads travelled on.
SRN and local roads are built to very different standards, which especially for heavy vehicles results in a huge difference in the cost of pavement wear on the different roads.
In addition to the road pavement, it would be reasonable to assume that there is more damage to other infrastructure such as guard rails and bridges on local roads compared to the SRN.
We believe there are also large differences in HGV-involved killed or seriously injured (KSI), especially for vulnerable road users.
The overall pricing structure could include elements related to:
- OPEX - pavement wear and other infra damage
- CAPEX - initial cost of providing higher specification infrastructure
- Deaths and injuries - want to use price as a mechanism to discourage use of types of route where there are more vulnerable road users and higher rates of KSI and encourage use of the safest most suitable routes.
- congestion- cost element for taking up space on road network - and how congested the network is at that time.
What about local buses?
Buses will need more revenue support under a RUC. Don't exempt them - just get used to the need to provide more revenue support. This is a mechanism for local authorities to gain more control of local buses without going through the pain of franchising or running buses themselves.
The revenue support doesn't just need to be "we'll pay a slice of local buses' RUC", it can be structured in a different way - just use the existing scheme but turn up the volume on it.