Road Use Meters: Built In or Aftermarket

Last week saw a huge number of news articles and online comments re the report just released by the US Congressional National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. One by the Reason Foundation's Bob Poole (thought leader behind the shift from HOV to HOT) asks a critical question:
The report talks a lot about implementation of a national (or federal-government) VMT charge by 2020, but does not make clear how implementation is defined. When I served on the TRB committee on the long-term viability of fuel taxes for highway funding, experts on VMT charging such as David Forkenbrock told us that it takes about 20 years for the passenger vehicle fleet to turn over, as new cars replace old cars that are subsequently scrapped. Unless a hacker-proof retrofit device comes along, it sounds to me like we are stuck with a 20-year transition period. Since the Finance Commission did not endorse a retrofit approach, is your 2020 deadline intended as the beginning year of this 20-year transition?
Mr. Poole is right that hacker-proof after-market devices are critical. Prototype devices are already available and standards are being written in the EU (ISO 17575 touches on this, but there is another standard internally called "Trusted Element" that was established nearly a year ago, that might take another year or two to finalize). This may be non-trivial, but as Commissioner Geoff Yarema pointed out in an IPR piece a few days ago: "It is not as hard as getting to the moon." Fleet turnover is a critical metric for factory installs, but not for the Commission's vision. This should not, cannot and will not be done without [hacker-proof] after-market devices. If we started factory installs in 2015 (say) then by 2035 (Professor Forkenbrock’s 20 years) the cars that were factory installed in 2015 will be a technical laughing stock. Would anyone today want to use a 1989 cell phone? I can't even bench-press mine any more. Besides, the range of innovation for, and value of, multi-application after-market telematics is astonishing. The “dashtop” will be the new laptop. And who wants a laptop built into their desk?

One of the most lucid comments to the commission on this matter is by Robin Chase. The response to Robin by the Commission Chair, whom I greatly admire, is very disappointing.

One of the Commissioners, Kathy Ruffalo, also responded to Bob:
It would be my hope that the industry would be the ones to begin the work to develop standards for any VMT technology. I believe that industry should be the driver for any standards. Having said that, DOT would eventually need to mandate the use of these standards to require original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to install the technology by a date certain that would allow for a 2020 implementation process. After market installation of the technology on a large-scale basis would probably be quite costly. So – the goal would be for the OEMs to do the install in new vehicles with factory-installed equipment. I agree that fleet turnover will take time. During the transition – when some vehicles would have the VMT technology and others would not – we would have to have dual systems. Some drivers would pay a mileage based fee and others would pay the fuel tax. Eventually, we would reach a level of use where the number of vehicles needing after market installation (retrofits) would be isolated to a manageable number. While we believe we can begin to use a VMT system by 2020, it will require the willingness of all participants – especially the public – to be a partner to the transition.
Ms Ruffalo is right that industry will make these standards. That has been underway in the EU for well over five years (e.g. ISO/CEN 17575 and others). Unfortunately, only one American participates on that committee of 30-some experts. Aftermarket installation does not have to be as costly as imagined. Hacker-proof devices can be self-installed (this requires the right enforcement infrastructure, but enforcement is needed anyway so no incremental expense is needed in this regard). The manufacturing cost of hacker-proof devices is currently about $125 (in high volume, of course) and Moore's law will make it $50 in 5 years.

But how can we switch 250M vehicles and 200,000 fueling stations in the United States for Jan 1, 2020? We can do that by building an installed base of VMT aftermarket meters over a period of 10 years so we can cut over on Jan 1, 2020. How would we do that? Well, these same devices can be used for parking (huge convenience) and for insurance (save money for some) and driver rewards programs such as credits for not moving your vehicle during peak hours, hypermiling, parking loyalty and so on. Sell metering services that provide a range of desired services (including overlaying the current ETC systems). Who would do that? The cellcos. The business model is exactly the same as the cellular telephony. The handset becomes affixed to the windshield. The email service is switched for a metering and payment service. Everything else is identical: free meter for 3 years contract, monthly service, monthly bill, roaming, service package. AND there is no need for the Oregon-style data exchange with fueling stations, which should be avoided to ensure that people can fuel at home from their solar or wind generators. The prototypes for everything I describe can toll 240M vehicles by 2015, or more realistically 5 years after someone says: "Go".

Commissioner Yarema was so right. America does have the engineering skills.

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