Visualize a global positioning system (GPS) device that knows where you’ve parked, and for how long.
Imagine it can send this information directly to a company that will bill you, without allowing that company to spy on you.
This isn’t gee-whiz fiction.
Skymeter — a GPS-enabled device that’s in direct communication with a satellite orbiting the Earth — offers all that, according to Bern Grush, founder of Toronto-based Skymeter Corp., and chief scientist at the firm.
The GPS functionality used by this little black box enables drivers to conveniently (and accurately) make good their bills for services such as parking, toll road use, and pay-as-you-go insurance, he says.
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Grush predicts the device will be a regular component in vehicles of the future, as GPS toll roads are introduced.
That’s inevitable, Grush says. Since the 1980s, gas taxes have been ineffective at covering road maintenance costs. As vehicles have become more fuel efficient, the gap between mileage driven and the costs recouped from gas taxes has grown by 25 per cent. Now that cars are becoming hybrid, or entirely electric, that gap will widen even further.
“This means drivers will will be paying for their use of the road,” Grush says “That involves measuring their road usage, and this task has to be absolutely private, to the point of being anonymous.”
Grush predicts governments will turn to road tolls. It will cost drivers money to use roads, just like it costs money to turn on your electricity. A GPS-based meter will be used to bill you.
But it won’t track you, he adds. “That’s just a Hollywood myth.”
The Skymeter device, he says, knows where a vehicle is and calculates the amount owed for parking or road usage.
The customer can then either pay their fee in the car, or have the pricing information – not the location and time information – send out to a telecommunications billing operator wirelessly.
It’s a system already in place in Winnipeg, where some drivers have been using Skymeter to pay for parking since December. It beats standing in bone-chilling cold to feed coins to a meter.
Skymeter has been helped from research phase to commercialization of its product by the MaRS Discovery District. The Toronto-based organization’s goal is to help Canadian companies succeed by connecting them with resources they need.
“Bern, the founder of Skymeter, is a big privacy advocate,” says Krista Jones, practice lead, ICT at MaRS. “We’ve assisted Skymeter with their messaging to the marketplace — helping them incorporate those messages into their business development pitches.”
Privacy was the top message MaRS focused on when helping Skymeter hone its communications strategy. They knew that concerns would be raised about a technology that seemingly tracks and transmits personal whereabouts to Big Brother.
The message was a winner at investor presentations such as one given for Always On at Stanford, a summit in Palo Alto, Calif.
“One of the things that had to come out clearly in their investor pitch is the message that what they’re doing is accurate, is financial, and is private,” Jones says.
Exhibiting at Privacy by Design, a Toronto-based conference hosted by Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian, Grush said he is only following international standards laid out for this type of location-aware mobile technology.
It is determined by the International Working Group for Data Privacy and Telecommunications.
“We merely have to build a technology that respects those rules.”
In the Sophia Memorandum, a short document put out by the group, certain measures are included to ensure privacy. The memo says data must always be under the control of the driver of a vehicle, and that data must be deleted from the device when no longer needed.
Skymeter even respects the privacy of those who might try to cheat their bills. Some users might be tempted to try and avoid a parking bill by jamming Skymeter’s signal, or preventing the device from communicating with the billing operator.
But that tampering can be detected, he said.
It does report mischief, but doesn’t report where and when that occured, Grush says. “Because that is nobody’s business.”
He said when a driver doesn’t want to use the device, she or he can simply remove it from the vehicle and it is deactivated automatically. But then you’ll still have to put coins in the meter.
Unfortunately, there’s no technology to help you avoid paying for parking.
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