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Privacy issues raised over Singapore’s plan to use ‘smart’ road toll technology

Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) has shortlisted three consortia to tender for the development of the country’s next generation electronic road pricing system to be used on congested roads, based on global navigation satellite system (GNSS) technology.07 Oct 2014

The LTA said an 18-month system evaluation test that ended in December 2012 showed “it is technologically feasible to develop a GNSS-based road pricing system... (to) overcome the constraints of physical gantries, which are costly and take up land space”.

The LTA said it is impractical to continue with the current gantry system, “which is almost two decades old and will become increasingly expensive and difficult to maintain”.

However, concerns have been raised about how the technology might impact on privacy. In a statement issued in December 2013, the opposition Singapore Political Party expressed concern the satellite system would be used to track vehicles for "unwarranted surveillance".

Bryan Tan of Pinsent Masons MPillay, the Singapore joint law venture partner of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the “spectre of privacy issues” raised by the new system was “a valid concern”.

Tan said: “The government is exempted from the personal data protection act, which clearly states the principles of data protection in the form of obligations. Although there are assurances that government agencies have their own set of rules with similar levels of protection, not knowing what these rules and their exemptions are, the full impact of privacy issues raised will not be known. For instance, can the data be used by the army for determining whether an army reserve’s excuse for turning up late for a mobilisation exercise is valid, or by the tax authorities to determine whether an employee’s claim for mileage for business purpose was wrongly made for a personal trip?”

According to the LTA: “Another key advantage of a GNSS-based system is the ability to implement distance-based pricing along the congested roads where road pricing is to be implemented. Distance-based pricing as opposed to the current gantry-based system, is more equitable as motorists will be charged proportionate to the distance travelled on these congested roads.”

Under the GNSS-based system, motorists “can also look forward to an interactive and intelligent on-board unit in their vehicle that can support a range of value-added services”, the LTA said. “These include real-time traffic information tailored to their location, as well as electronic payment for parking fees without today’s paper coupons.”

The LTA said it is also considering “new policies” that would allow motorists who use their vehicles ‘off peak’ to pay only for using their vehicles for short periods rather than the whole day, or for using them only on uncongested roads.

Three consortia have been shortlisted to take part in the tender process. They are NCS Pte Ltd and MHI Engine System Asia Pte Ltd, ST Electronics (Info-Comm Systems) Pte Ltd, and Watchdata Technologies Pte Ltd and Beijing Watchdata System Co Ltd.

The LTA said it expects to award the contract to design and develop the GNSS-based system in the second half of 2015, with the aim of putting the system into use from around 2020.

This year, the LTA unveiled a master plan outlining how Singapore would develop its intelligent transport systems (ITS) over the next 15 years. The ‘Smart Mobility 2030’ master plan (44-page / 11 MB PDF), launched jointly with Intelligent Transportation Society Singapore, said it aimed to “optimise transport systems with the latest ITS initiatives and advancements in transport technologies”.

According to a study published in March 2014 by Grand View Research, Asia Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing region for ITS projects up to 2020, at an estimated compound annual growth rate of 14% from 2014. North America, which accounted for 43.8% of the overall industry share in 2013, is expected to remain the largest regional market over the forecast period, the survey said.