'Spy in the sky' keeps watch on speeding drivers
By David Millward, Transport Correspondent, in Abu Dhabi
Technology which could be the basis of a British pay-as-you-drive road-pricing scheme is about to be used to issue instant speeding tickets in parts of the Middle East.
Work on setting up the world's biggest "spy in the sky" network for tracking cars will begin within weeks, with around 10,000 black boxes to be fitted in vehicles in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
It is anticipated that 700,000 cars will be equipped with black boxes within three years.
Whitehall is understood to be monitoring the experiment in the United Arab Emirates.
"Technology is developing all the time. What makes this particularly interesting is the scale on which they are prepared to work," said a Whitehall source.
"The fact that they are ready to put this into several hundred thousand cars will help us make a judgment on whether satellite-based road pricing is really viable."
However the use of the technology to crack down on speeding would prove more controversial, even though experts such as the RAC Foundation doubt the Government would risk the unpopularity of introducing it here.
The boxes will make speed cameras redundant. With 21.6 road accident deaths per 100,000 population, the emirates' authorities are desperate to slow traffic down. Even speed cameras have proved ineffective with drivers often driving at more than 100mph. The technology can not only tell where cars are, but how fast they are travelling.
Motorists flouting the country's speed limit will first get a warning, perhaps through
the car radio or on the satellite navigation screen. If this is ignored, they can expect an automatic speeding ticket.
The authorities, which will receive a constant flow of data at a control centre, will be able to govern exactly when the errant motorist receives a ticket by setting a "tolerance level" - a margin for error above the speed limit.
The boxes - which preliminary estimates suggest could cost between £100 and £400 - could be installed when a car applies to have its annual licence renewed. Fitting the boxes - which will be about six by five inches - should take no longer than half an hour.
The medium term goal is road-pricing, but the ability to track the movement of cars has other uses.
There has been an approach from Saudi Arabia which wants to adapt the technology to prevent a repetition of the lorry bomb attacks on western compounds.
This will be done by tracking vehicle movements and using spy satellites to establish "secure zones" within
the country. The black boxes will also be used to track
convoys passing through "sensitive" parts of the Middle East.
The work in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is a co-operative project between IBM and the United Arab Emirates' government- backed high tech company CERT.
It comes as the EU presses ahead with "Project Veronica", a scheme looking at the widespread introduction of black boxes to help police piece together events leading up to an accident.