Road use fee linked to creepy vehicle tracking program

August 21, 2014

Some drivers are already being watched carefully: Car-share companies such as Zipcar track their cars’ moves, and EZPass users willingly hand over their tollway locations every time they hit a toll. But a new development may mean that the government wants the authority be able to track vehicles — and bill them accordingly, reports the National Journal.

cameras

We’re not conspiracy theorists or anything, but we’re not entirely comfortable with government location monitoring, even if VMT taxes make economic and climate sense. From jeroen020.

As the National Journal reports, urban planners are banking on the idea that drivers’ increasing acceptance of tracking will help them fund highways and roads. As we’ve written about on this blog before, our nation’s roads and highways are in a dire state of disrepair. Revenue from the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in years, has dropped as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient.

The proposed solution? In a tracking system, drivers would be charged per mile. “The tax would charge roads’ biggest users the most, leveling the playing field between fuel-efficient cars and gas guzzlers,” notes the National Journal. Hybrid and electric cars, which consume less or no gas, would be forced to pay. The proposal might also ease traffic by charging drivers more for driving into congestion.

It’s called a VMT, or vehicle-miles traveled, fee, and because it depends on tracking drivers, so far privacy concerns have prevented it from coming to pass. If it sounds familiar, it’s because in Ray LaHood, President Obama’s first-term Transportation secretary, first proposed it in 2009. It was quickly killed at the time.

But today, advocates for the fee say that privacy concerns are no longer as significant as they used to be. “Logic has not really entered into that discussion,” Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, told the National Journal. “People have had cell phones and private cell companies knowing where they travel for years, but somehow that doesn’t give them any more comfort if the federal government is going to track their driving.”

Private companies, including car-sharing services like Zipcar and Car2Go, as well as ride-sharing apps like Uber, already use GPS to track cars for safety and to prevent fraud, and, in the case of ride-sharing, to pick up customers. (Zipcar notes in its policy that the company does “not actively track or monitor vehicle location, and we do not story historical GPS data regarding vehicle location.”) Then there’s the EV Project, a collaboration between the Energy Department and car companies including Nissan and Chevrolet, offers drivers free chargers in exchange for the privilege of collecting information on their vehicle use, energy use, and charging.

Yet privacy advocates note that there is a difference between private companies’ using data and the government collecting data. “Research is understood by individuals. You can understand why a ride-sharing app would want to do research as long as its aggregated and takes steps to protect your privacy,” Gautum Hans, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology, told the National Journal. “With the government, there are reasons you would be concerned, whether it’s the First Amendment and the freedom of association or how the information is kept and how.”

So far, there is no definitive answer as to what technology VMT would use to track drivers. One pilot program based in Oregon, for example, gives its 5,000 volunteers options such as a smartphone app and GPS systems (paid for by the volunteer). As the National Journal notes, “a ‘black box’ is unlikely—it’s expected that, at most, the system would rely on a one-way GPS system that simply relayed the distance traveled to alleviate the bigger driving concerns.”

Drivers may eventually volunteer their information before any mandatory system is implemented. “A full-steam-ahead effort to develop a standard, mandating every car comes equipped with an on-board GPS, that’s going to be a while,” explained Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, to the National Journal. “As cars become smarter, you’ll end up with more that have the capability to do this. I think if you start with a voluntary system, you’ll see it grow.”

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Category: Automotive

About the Author ()

Katy is a writer, reporter and editor who, in addition to writing for RoadTrafficSigns, has worked with the United Nations Development Programme, Hamptons magazine, Hearst Corporation, The Daily Mail, People Magazine, and a variety of other publications and nonprofits. After graduating with honors from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and distinctions on her thesis and in the consumer journalism seminar, she moved to Milan, Italy. In Italy, she worked as a writer and consultant for an international magazine, editing and translating text and reporting on such events as the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, the annual design fair. A born and raised New Yorker, she has lived in three of five boroughs, relying quite a bit on public transport until getting her driver's license at the admittedly belated age of 21.

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