Skymeter Corp., a Toronto startup trying to raise the bar on congestion-tolling technology — i.e. “road user charging” — has received high grades after a small pilot project with Cisco Systems in Seoul, Korea. Following a six-month pilot, Cisco named Skymeter its “technical solution partner” for location, time and distance-based road user charging.
Cisco has partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative to bring carbon-reducing communications infrastructure to seven cities, an initiative called Connected Urban Development.
Skymeter’s GPS-based road use charging technology lets governments manage demand for roads by charging drivers based on the location of their journey, the time of day, and their distance travelled. The revenues collected from such a program can then be directed toward congestion reduction, road repairs and transit improvement. Preet Khalsa, Skymeter’s chief technology officer, said Cisco put the system through rigorous tests in parts of Seoul with dense architecture, where tall buildings and other structures would form what’s called an “urban canyon.” This is an environment where GPS-based technologies usually struggle.
“It was imperative that we generated highly consistent charges every time we ran the same trip,” said Khalsa. “The public demands consistency and an extremely low error rate. Errors of five and 10 per cent in road or parking charges would be unacceptable. We already surpass two per cent and will continue to improve this.”
Kamal Hassan, CEO of Skymeter, said CIsco is committed to the technology and future steps are being negotiated. The next step, he added, will likely be deployment of a larger pilot project. Indeed, the work with Cisco is a great endorsement of Skymeter’s technology. The benefit of Skymeter’s system is that, being GPS-based, it depends less heavily on expensive infrastructure. For example, systems in Stockholm or London are based on the deployment of physical toll gates, which simply keep track of vehicles coming and going from a particular entry or exit point. If either of these cities want to expand, they’ll have to invest in the additional infrastructure.
Skymeter, on the other hand, requires none of that. Instead, vehicles are required only to attach a black box to their vehicle that communicates with existing GPS satellite and wireless networks, charging vehicles not just based on some zone they’ve entered, but instead by kilometres driven at a certain time and in a certain place. What constitutes the “tolling zone” is easily defined in the back-end software, and can be expanded over time with little additional cost. Once the black box is in a vehicle, a municipality can also get creative with parking schemes (such as meterless street parking) and other location-based services.
If we’re to head in this direction in the future as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and manage our cities better, then this approach is the way to go. Unfortunately, Skymeter is getting more traction in Europe and Asia than in North America, where municipalities — such as Toronto — have politicians who are afraid to even mention the word “road toll.” New York City and San Francisco appear serious, but even then, there’s preference for gate-based systems rather than the much more flexible, GPS-based system offered by Skymeter.
Skymeter is an example of a small company with a promising technology aimed at tackling a serious problem and filling a real need. Unfortunately, there’s not much leadership willing to address the problem, particularly as markets are ravaged by the current credit crisis centred in the United States and spreading across the globe. We’ll get there at some point. The question is whether a cash-hungry startup like Skymeter can wait.