We need a new ready-made collection platform for road fees

One of the largest differences between collecting fuel taxes and collecting road-use taxes (and this plays very much against the business of collecting road-use taxes) is that a century ago there was a convenient measurement node and collection platform already in place (fuel distributors).  Government(s) merely had to tap into an existing infrastructure.  Relative to any of the current proposed approaches to collecting for road use from each vehicle (RFID/DSRC, GPS, Cellular, Camera, OBD, Odometer, Vignette), collecting at several hundred fuel distribution nodes is smart, easy and cheap.

Making the critically important shift from fuel-consumption tax to road-consumption tax has almost everything stacked against it except that it would (if priced correctly) solve many of our surface transportation problems (funding, congestion, emissions, oil dependence). The problem with all the proposed replacement collection methods is their business execution model: build an elaborate, dedicated, complex, confusing, and expensive infrastructure that is subject to greater user resistance and mischief, to collect a few dollars a week from each vehicle – a terribly small amount for such a complex operation.

This is why the economically inefficient fuel tax is preferred. This is why even less efficient sales taxes are preferred. This is why property taxation is preferred and heavily used. And this is why, in the United States, we are currently back-filling the fuel tax out of the General Fund. From the simple business of finding an affordable assessment and collection mechanism pretty much anything other than metering each vehicle is a more expedient business to administer.

If there was a device already in each vehicle – a reliable device that had another, highly desired, indispensable purpose, i.e., a purpose comparable in importance as having fuel in your tank – such a device could carry an embedded road-use meter and become the collection platform for the replacement of the fuel tax.

We already know several ways to make such devices.  What we are missing is a way to make it have a highly desirable and indispensable purpose. We are missing a free, pre-existing collection platform model to rival the fuel distribution business model that Governments so easily exploited over the past century. This is why building a new, dedicated tax-collection infrastructure that reaches into every vehicle is wrong-headed. And this is why promoting telematics systems for safety, convenience, traveler services, parking payment, PAYD insurance and infotainment – systems that can carry road-use metering functionality for little or no marginal cost – should be the first order.

Such systems can be made desirable, useful, reliable and nearly self-enforceable.  They can make our roads safer, our drives more pleasant, our trip more efficient, our roads less congested and save almost all of us money.  Much more importantly – for matters of funding, demand management, emissions management and oil dependence – such systems can provide the basis for private enterprise to offer profitable and competitive services, just as fuel distributors already offered profitable and competitive services a century ago.

If markets for telematics-based parking and insurance metering, for safety systems, for traveler services and for infotainment were nurtured, standardized, encouraged and in some cases (insurance, parking) regulated or legislated in newer and smarter ways, private enterprise would build the telematics platform governments need to replace the cheap, convenient collection platform afforded by the fuel distributors over a hundred years ago.

This idea should hardly be surprising.  We have been in the Information Age for some decades. Automotive telematics is an information technology. We have ignored the obvious for too long. A private, for-profit telematics platform with numerous desired driver-service applications can be exploited to avoid system operational costs of road tolling, using the same business thinking that governments used to exploit the fuel distribution system a century ago.

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