Privacy fears weigh on future car tech for billing road use

Despite assurances that GPS is one-way and won't track a car's movement, there are still privacy worries related to road user collection technologies. A pilot program of a Vehicle Miles Traveled payment system is envisioned in the infrastructure bill approved by the U.S. Senate now before the House. (Getty Images)

 

Privacy fears of being tracked by the government could be the biggest stumbling block of a futuristic road user charge (RUC) system that uses GPS and auto diagnostics to bill drivers and fund surface highway projects.

“Perhaps the single biggest criticism of the RUC system is that it violates travelers’ privacy,” said the Information Technology Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in a 2019 policy guide. 

But ITIF believes such fears are overblown. The think tank attempted to overcome such concerns by noting misperceptions surrounding RUC system, including that GPS does not work two-way.  “The car knows where it is thanks to the GPS, but the GPS itself does not know where the car is,” ITIF said. “There is no external tracking involved.”

Millions of new vehicles are already equipped with GPS which “has not led to techno-panic,” ITIF wrote.

ITIF said such a RUC system, more recently called a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) payment system in the massive infrastructure bill before Congress, could rely on an onboard unit (OBU) or other recording device to manage the system and total mileage to dispense fees to a central authority.

The VMT or RUC system would transmit only the vehicle ID and payment and no trip info, ITIF said. The transmission could occur at a gas pump or electric charging station or via a cellular connection inside a vehicle.  Older data on the OBU could be deleted after the tax bill has been paid.

Nonetheless, ITIF conceded that “privacy fears do remain a stumbling block to widespread implementation” of VMT, ITIF said.

A five-year test of VMT technology, including privacy, is called for in the $1 trillion infrastructure plan recently passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the House. It calls for allocating $15 million each year from 2022 through 2026 to test various technology for collection of data and fees in rural and urban locations.  The pilot tests must ensure privacy and security of data collected and would be done only with volunteers.

RELATED: Goodbye gas tax. Hello road user fees.

Trucker worries

In 2019 at the time of its writing, ITIF was concerned whether trucking companies would go along with VMT systems, including opposition from the American Trucking Association, the largest group representing U.S. truckers.

But an ATA spokesman offered something of a surprise in a statement sent Monday to Fierce Electronics that offered conditional support of a national VMT pilot that “could go a long way toward establishing such a system’s viability as an eventual replacement for the myriad of taxes that fund the Highway Trust Fund.” The spokesman added, however, “there are significant questions about how a VMT tax would be implemented.”

ATA recognizes that the sustainability of the trust fund “is in jeopardy” unless changes are made to the federal user fee system. 

Lingering privacy concerns

Despite privacy concerns and logistical matters, ITIF and others believe a VMT tax is inevitable.

 

“I suspect VMT will happen eventually because the gas tax won’t be reflected in electric vehicles as we have more on the road,” said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

He said a much simpler and more private a way to collect fees than with on-vehicle monitoring would be by installing meters on public and private electric charging and gas stations to collect data and implement a tax. “Privacy protections would be much higher, as you’re looking only at the amount of charge I use and not where, when, what and more compared to vehicle monitoring,” he said.

“Privacy generally will always be an issue,” Gold said. “If you are tracking my miles driven, it raises the question of what else are you tracking? In theory, you’ll know not only how much I drive, but where I drive to, when and how fast I’m going.”

Products like Google Maps and Wave already track that information as do the dongles installed by insurance companies in cars.  “We are already on the lack-of-privacy trail,” Gold said. “But do we trust the government to have that much information about us? It presents some real privacy issues as we know the government hasn’t been the greatest at keeping our personal data safe.”

Whatever happens with the infrastructure bill in the House, even if the VMT pilot is approved, one saving grace for privacy advocates is that it could take years before any national VMT system is set up and put to use.