Counting the Kilometres - and paying for them


How to introduce an EU wide kilometre charging system



What’s happening already?

A possible system

Fitting in with other charges

Political will

Acknowledgements and further contacts


Road haulage is big!  It transports more goods than any other means of transport in Europe, and has grown rapidly in recent decades, providing prosperity to those in the industry.  But there have been problems arising from this growth, notably:



all caused by lorries which pay for some but not all the damage they cause.


And that is the problem.  Road haulage has grown partly because it does not have to pay the full costs of its activity.  This is a situation which politicians, economists, campaigners and the European Commission recognise cannot be allowed to continue.


The Commission addressed this situation in a white paper published in 1998[1].1  It needed to find solutions which were fair to:



And among its ideas was a system of kilometre charging.


The idea of kilometre charging looks promising. In essence, a fair kilometre charging system would have to:



The question is: how could this actually be done?

Back to the top


What’s happening already?


Switzerland is the only European country so far to have concrete plans for introducing a charge on all kilometres driven by heavy goods vehicles on its whole territory (not just motor-ways). Austria and Germany have plans to introduce kilometre charging systems within a few years, but only for their motorways. And there is growing interest in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden, though no firm plans as yet.


The Swiss have made some decisions on technical issues.  Its system will consist of:



It will be a legal requirement for Swiss vehicles to have an on-board unit (OBU), and foreign lorries will be encouraged to have one as it would avoid manual payments on every trip, which would cause disruptions to journeys.


The Swiss system looks good as a starting point, but it makes only limited use of GPS.  Given that GPS will be increasingly used in lorries for other purposes (safety features, electronic road maps, etc) and given its ability to identify a vehicle’s location, it should be further exploited to help create a system of fair prices for road use.

Back to the top


A possible system


So the challenge is to find a feasible system which gets as close to optimal charging as possible. It would have to charge for all kilometres driven within a member state, ideally differentiating the charge between individual roads which have different characteristics (and would therefore require different levels of charging to cover the full cost).  However, it is probably too ambitious to attempt a high level of differentiation at this stage.  So the aim should be to have a system which can differentiate the charge country-by-country, for certain geographical areas (like a mountain range with a delicate ecosystem), and for certain specific roads like motorways.


The technical set-up of a feasible system would be based on GPS, an electronic tachograph, an electronic on-board unit, GSM communications, and some roadside beacons.


GPS – the American Department of Defence developed  its GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite tracking technology for military purposes, and it is now available for civil uses. GPS would be used for registering when a vehicle enters a new charging area. 


Electronic tachograph – an electronic tachograph is mandatory on all goods vehicles in the EU and is used to measure the kilometres driven. It is possible to measure the kilometres using GPS and additional sensors, but unlike the electronic tachograph, this would not be a legally accepted method.


On-board unit – the electronic OBU, which costs around e 800 per lorry, would store vehicle characteristics such as registration plate, number of axles, permissible axle loads, engine emission class, etc.  It would also be used for storing data on the number of kilometres driven in the different charging areas, and could even calculate the charge itself.


GSM – the Global System for Mobile communications is the largest standard in Europe, with many areas already fully covered by it. GSM can be used to identify the vehicle, to tap its OBU for data on kilometres driven (including how many are driven in different charging areas), and for payment.


Roadside beacons – these have been used for many years in tolling systems, for example in France and Italy.  They generally work with dedicated short-range communications, sometimes called microwave.  They would be used for enforcement purposes (eg. checking whether a trailer was being used), and could also be used for indicating that a lorry is entering a new charging area.


There are three possible ways of paying for the kilometres driven.



The first two seem more plausible and acceptable methods than the pre-pay system.


In terms of which roads the kilometre charge would apply to, it could be used just for motorways, but applying it to all roads would be more efficient.  This is because the charges would more accurately reflect the cost and damage lorries impose on society, and it would remove a possible risk that lorry drivers would use roads unsuited to heavy vehicles to avoid the charge.  It would also be financially better for governments.


If the system is adopted across the EU, the number of vehicles without on-board units will be small.  But there will still be a few, notably low-mileage vehicles which might legitimately claim an exemption from the requirement to spend e 800 on an on-board unit, and non-EU vehicles from countries without kilometre charging (or with a system that is incompatible with the EU’s).  A way of charging these vehicles could be found, for example the low-mileage vehicles could be charged for their annual distance driven (to be read at the annual vehicle inspection), and foreign lorries could use a semi-electronic self-service system with vehicle identity cards, or if absolutely necessary a manual system with paper and cash.

Back to the top


Fitting in with other charges


No one measure can hope to solve all the social and environmental problems which stem from road haulage, but an electronic kilometre charging system could replace a number of existing charges in a step-by-step process:


1.                 When it is first introduced, it should replace the Eurovignette, annual vehicle tax, and tolls on motorways, bridges and tunnels.

2.                 The new charge should be used gradually to internalise the marginal social costs of heavy goods vehicles.

3.                 Eventually member states should allow the charge to replace any part of existing fuel taxes that are not levied to cover the costs of carbon dioxide emissions, and possibly also road accidents.

4.                 Once the kilometre charging system has been extended to cars and vans, diesel fuel will need to be taxed only for carbon emissions – that would reduce incentives to evade tax caused by diesel being taxed lower than petrol.


So how could it be done?


Once the technical decisions have been made, an electronic kilometre charging system could be introduced immediately and unilaterally.  One state acting alone would not contravene the rules of the internal market as the charge is non-discriminatory and based on the principle of territoriality.


However, there are certain advantages to introducing a kilometre charging system across all member states of the EU.  These include:



A multilateral approach would also allow for a common authority for kilometre charging, something like the Eurocontrol agency which collects fees from airlines for using European flight corridors.  Such an agency would then pass the appropriate money back to the countries where the kilometres were driven (the territoriality principle).


There would have to be a few changes to EU legislation, notably Directive 1999/62/EC on heavy goods vehicle taxation and user charges (the so-called ‘Eurovignette directive’[2]). These include:



The directive already contains the necessary classification of vehicles into environmental categories as well as permitted weight and axle loads, so with relatively small changes it could be turned into a Framework Directive for European Kilometre Charging of Heavy Goods Vehicles.


Nevertheless, the Directive should be slightly amended to allow differentiation between all Euro classes, including Euro III, Euro IV and EEV.

Back to the top


Political will


There are a number of advantages and very few obstacles to introducing an EU-wide system of kilometre charging:



In other words, it can be done!


All that is lacking is the political will. This should not be too difficult, especially if politicians can make it clear to voters that kilometre charging is a very fair system, which will include the abolition of annual vehicle tax, tolls on motorways, bridges and tunnels, and ultimately - once the kilometre charging system is fully operational - a reduction in fuel tax.

Back to the top


Acknowledgements and further contacts


This leaflet is a summary of the recommendations of a paper ‘Electronic Kilometre Charging for Heavy Goods Vehicles in Europe’, by Per Kågeson and Jos Dings, published by the European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) in 1999 (updated by Markus Liechti in 2000). 


To obtain a physical copy, contact the T&E secretariat (, quoting reference T&E 99/6/fact-sheet. Alternatively it can be downloaded from the T&E website.


T&E (The European Federation for Transport and Environment) is Europe’s primary non-governmental organisation campaigning on a European level for an environmentally responsible approach to transport. T&E is the umbrella organisation of 37 member organisations covering 20 European countries working in this field.


Gröna Bilister (The Swedish Association of Green Motorists) is a member of T&E.

Its aim is to make road transport more friendly to the environment and to promote public transport and cycling.


Thanks to Gröna Bilister this leaflet was produced with financial support from the Swedish Environment Protection Agency.


Back to the top



[1] Fair Payment for Infrastructure Use: A phased approach to a common transport infrastructure charging framework in the EU, White Paper, DG VII, 22 July 1998.

[2] Council Directive 99/62/EC on the charging of heavy goods vehicles for the use of certain infrastructures.