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.


Robin Chase said...


Sean said...

I watched the reaction to the NSTIF commission report on many major news outlets. You are bang on that privacy remains a very key issue. I agree completely that this needs to be addressed at a legislative level. I understand that I will have to pay for road use this way, but I want total assurance that not only will no one track me, but that it is not even possible to track me through these new devices.