Clearing the Air in India: GPS could become handy

This piece was originally published in the Hindustan Times.

This past February, Nitin Gadkari, Minister of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) announced that the Government of India will soon have a tender to transition national highway tolling from FASTag to a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) for seamless traffic flow. Most new cars in India today come with a built-in GNSS (popularly understood as GPS) for tracking and emergency services, and MoRTH has mandated GNSS devices in public service vehicles since 2019. Although GNSS is only intended for tolling for now, the potential applications stretch far beyond national highways.

Indeed, GNSS technology can also be pivotal for implementing policy strategies highlighted in multiple streams of research from the ICCT India that support improvements in air quality, equitable passenger car taxation, charging infrastructure readiness, and decarbonizing trucks. Let’s walk through three important ways that it can improve urban transport governance in India.

GNSS enables regulatory interventions like low-emission zones (LEZs).

ICCT research from last year showed that while legal pathways already exist at the national, state, and local levels to allow for implementing LEZs, there remain financial, monitoring, and enforcement issues to address first. For example, London, UK uses a vast network of traffic cameras to monitor traffic and charge vehicles that violate LEZ rules. These are expensive to install and scale, and only a few of the cities in India that must address pollution and congestion will have the luxury of a wide traffic camera network like Delhi. According to Central Pollution Control Board data from December 2023, out of 244 Indian cities, 56 had “very poor” or “poor” air quality.

Satellite-linked GNSS devices in vehicles can be used to monitor the movement of vehicles into and within LEZs. In cases where all vehicles have GNSS, city governments would just need to invest in software systems to enforce LEZs. Such zones could be scaled up or down without requiring any additional on-road infrastructure, and that would reduce costs. Further, many LEZ enforcement concerns, including people blocking number plates and vandalizing cameras, can be avoided using this technology. GNSS devices in all vehicles nationwide can enable local governments to effectively enforce LEZ regulations on all vehicles, regardless of their city or state/union territory of registration.

GNSS lays the foundation for equitable transport taxation.

The ICCT’s research on passenger car taxation in India found that the GST cess structure, with rates based on vehicle length, fuel type, engine displacement, and ground clearance, misses opportunities for a tax commensurate with vehicle fuel consumption. Crudely put, the analysis showed that there may be instances when cars that pollute more pay lower GST cess than those that pollute less. Instead, a continuous emissions-linked function for GST cess could encourage consumers to purchase cleaner vehicles and encourage manufacturers to invest in fuel-efficiency improvements. Apart from GST, there are also flat taxes like road taxes, passenger and goods taxes, and fuel consumption-based taxes like excise duty and value added tax (VAT).

GNSS technology can be leveraged to introduce continuous emissions-linked taxation regimes like distance-based taxation and transition away from flat taxes. Auto insurance companies are doing similar by transitioning from flat premiums to usage-based premiums. Today a user who drives 5 km and another who drives 500 km pay the same road tax even though the second user is polluting more. With GNSS technology, the administrator will be able to instead levy road taxes that are based on actual usage. Privacy concerns will need to be addressed, but by integrating GNSS technology into transport governance, India can potentially bring all transport-related taxation, from road taxes to fuel taxes to passenger and goods taxes, under one umbrella. Such an overarching system would potentially improve the effectiveness of economic instruments and would align with the “polluter pays” principle. This could nudge people toward public transport and more fuel-efficient vehicles and electric vehicles (EVs).

GNSS data supports effective and efficient transport planning.

Research published by the ICCT earlier this year focused on Haryana’s EV readiness and found that the high opportunity cost of charging is mainly due to long distances between public charging stations and the need to wait several hours at charging stations. The analysis highlighted the need for further development and equitable deployment of public EV charging infrastructure to support the state’s ambitious EV goals. Additionally, in a recently published blog post, ICCT researchers showed how streamlining highway tolling data could help address data roadblocks faced by those working to decarbonize trucking.

GNSS data from current vehicles can inform plans for charging infrastructure placement to promote equity and address the high opportunity costs of charging. Moreover, GNSS technology in trucks can address data gaps and inform design, policy, and infrastructure interventions for accelerating zero-emission truck adoption in India. It can also be used to manage parking spaces and associated pricing, and to complement traffic cameras to enforce penalties for speeding. Lastly, from optimizing routes to analyzing traffic patterns, GNSS data can provide valuable insights that enable authorities to make informed decisions and enhance overall transport system efficiency.

The way forward

Highway tolling is not the first application of GNSS in transport: It has already been used in navigation, ride hailing, and e-commerce, and is being applied by automotive insurance companies. As illustrated by the examples here, integrating this technology with vehicles is a golden opportunity for India. To make the most out of the technological foundation that MoRTH is initiating with GNSS, India next needs well-designed pilot programs, as these can offer valuable insights when later scaling up these approaches.


Aravind Harikumar

Amit Bhatt
India Managing Director

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