The Marketplace Report: U.K.'s Car Tracking System

Alex Chadwick talks to Stephen Beard of Marketplace about the British government's decision to install a new electronic tracking system in auto license plates to help detect and perhaps prevent traffic violations.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The British government is about to test a new system for tracking vehicles and charging drivers when they use toll roads. This system involves high-tech license plates which constantly transmit a vehicle's unique identification number. US officials are watching what the British do with these trials to see whether we should try a system like that here. Stephen Beard joins us from the "Marketplace" news bureau in London.

Stephen, the technology here is not new, is it? This is what retailers use to track inventory.

STEPHEN BEARD reporting:

Yeah, absolutely. RFID, or radio frequency identification. The difference is that in retailing, they're using a very simple, physically flat bit of circuitry that's put into clothes and other items, and which is then energized and detected by a transmitter. It's a sort of passive system. The device which is being put into these high-tech license plates is bigger, much more powerful, battery-operated. It transmits a signal which can be picked up by relatively unsophisticated, and therefore reasonably cheap, roadside readers. That's according to Michael Cordell, who runs the company that's developed the smart plates.

Mr. MICHAEL CORDELL: So you can have a roadside reader simply powered using a solar panel sitting by the side of the road just collecting data, and it then transmits it back to the central system.

BEARD: Once that vehicle identification number's been recorded in the central system, the authorities can then, of course, charge the car owner for using that stretch of road by debiting his credit card, for example.

CHADWICK: It sounds like a pretty extraordinary system to go through for a country that I don't think has so many toll roads and bridges.

BEARD: No, it doesn't. But there's actually a lot of talk about having more because of the congestion on British roads. But really what this is all about is the British government getting concerned about a thing called vehicle cloning. This is where people put fake number plates on their vehicle so that if they're photographed by one of the thousands of speed cameras operating in Britain, they don't have to pay the fine because the camera's photographed the wrong number. This apparently is quite a big problem here. These electronic tags don't lie, they can't be circumvented, and they would catch who banked a right if you did go through a speed camera.

CHADWICK: You know, I don't know if the license plates are going to catch on, but wait till people hear about this license plate cloning. That's going to be big over here in no time at all.

BEARD: Indeed.

CHADWICK: How about privacy concerns? That might be something that someone would raise over here.

BEARD: The company that makes these plates points out that surveillance cameras of one sort or another are so widespread in Britain that people can hardly object to this electronic tagging.

Anyway, we'll be talking more about the high-tech license plates on "Marketplace" later today, and we'll also be looking at another development in the business world: how the music industry is creating a new business model using file-sharing networks.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Stephen Beard, of public radio's "Marketplace" from American Public Media.

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