Remove privacy concerns as a barrier to VMT charging in the US

The US Congressional National Surface Transport Infrastructure Financing (NSTIF) Commission released its report on Thursday, 26 February 2009. This Commission recommended that the U.S. transition from fuel taxes to a system where roads are financed by a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) charge by metering drivers' actual use of roads.

The commission pointed out that this could be done privately, even while using GPS technology (which can easily be done, and has been done). Nonetheless, the most common and most consistent objection to the use of GPS for road use charging is that privacy will be compromised. For some, this fear is real and arguably even justified without accusations of paranoia. The European Union is taking the legislative steps to ensure that location data may not leave private vehicles when GPS is being used to calculate use charges. This can be done by calculating usage bills with on-board equipment, by sending out billing data without any time or location information, or even by payment on-board with a smart card. There are related ways to ensure that on-board equipment is working correctly and that payment is being made also without any invasion of privacy. Specifically, there is no technical requirement that any person know or any machine, outside of the on-board equipment, record the location data from a trip for a road use charging system.

Indeed it is possible to provide anonymous on-board units that are pre-paid (e-cash can be loaded anonymously). These devices can debit a trip and immediately erase all location data within 3-8 minutes of stopping a vehicle, for extreme anonymity. In this case, to invade privacy, an on-board unit would have to be forcibly seized, decoded and uploaded within a couple of minutes of stopping a vehicle. That is immeasurably more private than the current RFID-type systems that we use for E-ZPass or SunPass in the U.S.

The question is not whether privacy can be protected. It can be. The question is: what kind of legislation will the US (and each state) enact? The EU is designing legislation that will not permit road-use meters to send location data out of the car to be provided to private vehicles.

We must decide and enact the legislation we want here, in the U.S., as well. We cannot tell motorists not to worry without pointing to such measures. It is not enough to say “we won’t”. We need to say “we can’t”. We need to provide metering systems that cannot permit privacy to be compromised.

While privacy is not the only objection to VMT, it is one we are wisest not to dismiss. America has a long standing social contract that we may go anywhere we wish and do anything we wish with whomever we wish as long as it is legal. Americans expect to be able to continue doing this whether they like VMT or not. Not addressing this clearly and unequivocally is to reduce the likelihood of acceptance of VMT charging. The sooner we do this and begin educating motorists, the sooner we begin rescuing our surface transportation network.


The Privacy Argument is a False Alarm

On Valentine's Day the Toronto Star had two full pages about wide-area, GPS-based road pricing and congestion pricing. For a newspaper from a city with a mayor who said “No” in a province with a Premier that said “No”, I am surprised they waste trees on the subject. But I suspect they know that the incumbent leadership will soon be proven wrong by the increasing size and number of the mayor’s potholes and by the decreasing efficacy of the premier’s fuel-tax.

The first article, Made-to-measure road toll system [Mark Toljagic], was positive. Unfortunately, it ended with the usual:
“The elephant in the room is a concern about privacy. ‘(It) begs a lot of questions about the circumstances under which specific movements of specific vehicles could be tracked individually and used against motorists for a variety of reasons,’ says [the CAA’s Edyta] Zdancewicz.”
The second article, Toll roads drive me mad [Jim Kenzie], by an automotive journalist was negative. It too played the same dramatic lever that anyone against road pricing would use:
“Privacy issues should also be top-of-mind here. Do we really want governments to know exactly where we are every second of the day or night? They would never misuse that information, would they?"
Privacy is easily the most visible and most easily exploited argument against road-pricing, especially since the economic argument for pricing has been made over and over and was settled well over a decade ago.

I spoke about this concern and mindset several months ago, after California’s Insurance Commissioner made the same error that Jim Kenzie did: [3 minute MP3]

Your vehicle can only be tracked if a telematics device sends your location out of the car. No-one tracks you if you use a Garmin NUVI or a TomTom to navigate as your location is not broadcast. Road metering systems are the same, they use your position and something called a “pricemap” to calculate what you owe. You can either pay inside the car or elect to send billing data out for credit billing. No one need know you were at the corner of Smith and Wesson at 7:42am on Tuesday. “They” (and you) just need to know that you owe Toronto (the Province, the 407ETR, Impark, GreenP, or Dominion Insurance) $8.12, for that month. And of course, if you don’t agree with the bill, you need a way to get at your data in your car for examination. And these devices are self-enforcing, so that if you tamper, they will send out a message that tattles on you. They STILL do not need to track you. There is no one in this country or the US that wants to be tracked.

And “they” will NEVER get a majority to agree to that.