Big Brother? I Think He’s On My Contact List.

gps_trackingby James A. Bacon

Not long ago there was a fair amount of buzz over the idea of a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax as a way to finance the maintenance and construction of roads and highways in the United States. That buzz, it seems, has largely died down. Technologically speaking, it would be a no-brainer to attach a GPS device to a car and track how many miles it drove over the course of a year. But any time someone broaches the idea, foes say it would never work — Americans would never tolerate the government monitoring their movements in order to calculate how many miles they drive. End of conversation.

A new poll calls that conventional wisdom into question. Life360, a company that sells an inexpensive service enabling subscribers to track the whereabouts of friends and family, recently surveyed 1,169 teens and adults who own smart phones. Sixty percent reported that they use at least one location-sharing app on their phone, and 36% say they use two or more.

Life360 concluded that location-sharing is driven by safety. Parents like to know where their children are. Sometimes, children even want to know where their parents are. Admittedly, that’s a far cry from sharing your location with the government for the purpose of taxing you. But it shows that people are willing to trade a modicum of privacy for something else of value.

Many other apps offer inducements for people to share their GPS data. Subscribers logging into Waze yield their location in exchange for access to maps showing real-time traffic flow based on the movement of all other subscribers. Subscribers to FourSquare share comments about restaurants, nightclubs, parks and other urban amenities — and can detect the whereabouts of friends who are nearby. Glympse, an Android app, locates the location of friends and shows their movement on a map. Marco Polo provides another twist on the same concept.

One might respond that those are small start-up companies, and they’re only sharing GPS location with friends. But General Motors’ OnStar unit tracks subscribers’ car locations to provide turn-by-turn navigation, quick crash-response service and stolen car assistance. Three years ago the company forecast the number of subscribers to reach 7.9 million by 2017. Meanwhile, the service has inspired numerous competitors, including Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, State Farm and WatchDog.

The fact is that millions of Americans share their GPS-derived locational data already, and no one gets bent out of shape about it. There is one important difference, I’ll concede, between these private services and a VMT tax. People voluntarily share their GPS data with Life360, Waze, OnStar and the rest. A tax is compulsory.

While civil libertarians may grumble, Americans are getting acclimated to the idea of sharing GPS data. If they are willing to make their location public to their network of friends and acquaintances, and if they relinquish the data to giant auto manufacturers, it’s a relatively small step to allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to access the same information for the purpose of determining how many miles they drive in a year.

A VMT tax is an elegant solution to funding the maintenance of roads and highways. Motorists pay in direct proportion to which they use the roads, add to wear and tear on asphalt and incur public expense. A VMT does not shift the fiscal burden to pedestrians, cyclists, bus riders and little old ladies who drive 1,000 miles a year going back and forth to the beauty parlor. It puts responsibility squarely where it belongs, on people who drive the most. To my mind, that is a compelling public purpose that justifies the minimal loss of privacy associated with GPS sharing.

Virginia, it’s time to think seriously about instituting a VMT tax and moving toward a true user-pays system for funding Virginia’s roads, bridges and highways.

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16 responses to “Big Brother? I Think He’s On My Contact List.”

  1. NewVirginia Avatar

    It’s also (theoretically) possible to use a device that monitors your VMT and occasionally broadcasts it to the DOT without actually transmitting information about your actual whereabouts. Put one of those accountability offices in charge of making sure the NSA doesn’t abuse them and you have an easy solution.

    When I visited Singapore, I was fascinated by these little devices every car has on the dash. It tells you how much the fee will be (based on time of day) and charges you as you drive – just like an EZ-pass. I don’t know if these are standard, but it also had a little credit card swiper or connection (can’t remember) that allowed you to fill up your account while on the road.

    CATO loves it, the

  2. NewVirginia Avatar

    Not sure how I hit post too early there… was going to say there are great common sense reasons to go to this system and a range of libertarian, environmentalist, conservative, and progressive proponents of it. It’s a great idea all around.

  3. I am flabbergasted that the idea of “sharing” does not distinguish who you are “sharing with” and your ability to choose to not share with whoever you wish not to share with… that you have no choice by to “share”.

    that’s not “sharing” … folks.. that’s like wearing a GPS ankle bracelet because you have to…


  4. How does it address weight? My engineer friends tell me that vehicle weight, i.e., heavy trucks cause the bulk of damage to roads and bridges. A car driving 25,000 miles per year causes a lot less damage than a huge tractor-trailer.

  5. accurate Avatar

    My goodness Larry, stop it!!! You are making sense, again, just stop. We know you’re a big government liberal democrat so jump on the bandwagon and demand that we tell the government everything they ever wanted. Okay, done with that rant.

    New Virginian – “Put one of those accountability offices in charge of making sure the NSA doesn’t abuse them and you have an easy solution.” And we’re going to accomplish that exactly HOW??? Oh yeah, we’ll just trust the government when they tell us that they won’t – sorry, I forgot.

    Lastly, allowing yourself to be followed/tagged/ID’ed, whatever you want to call it. Just look at how many people allow browsers to capture and remember things like log in information, pin numbers, credit card numbers and the list goes on. Impossible to believe that people ALLOW this – count me as a paranoid consumer. My accounts and passwords are written down on a piece of paper (how old fashioned of me). My browser and my phone do NOT save passwords or account names. Again, I’m a rebel in that area, I’m also older and in some ways wiser due to being old. However, Larry is really beginning to worry me 🙂

  6. accurate Avatar

    Besides, I just thought about one more thing. With us all moving into the urban core as Jim would LOVE us to do. It’s basically a moot point as we’ll all be walking or taking that wonderful mass transit to get where we want/need to go. So this discussion is all for naught.

    1. Accurate, you’ve convinced me — I do NOT want you to move into the urban core. I want you OUT of the urban core! Moving to the urban core is only for people who want to live there!!!

  7. A. The government is not your friend.
    B. We already have a VMT tracking device. It’s called the odometer.

  8. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with Accurate’s endorsement! 😉

    but I’ve been saying for quite some time that the view “out their” is not good with respect to government (really, a lot of institutions like science and public education, etc)… and it’s totally odd that someone like Jim B who has expressed a continual mistrust of govt on a number of levels beginning with fiscal discipline.. would want them to be in charge of a GPS unit in your car.

    it totally does not fit with Jim’s default view of govt in general!

    Darrell, as usual, has the common sense answer but their are flies in that ointment also because it’s the states that levy the gas tax and it would be the states that check the odometers (which I would support if it included the VIN which would identify the vehicle type) – so you’d have to have a 50-state system to do that and even then you’d no longer know what miles are run up in what states especially for folks that live near state borders.

    but beyond this.. I’m not sure increasing the amount of money that states have to spend on transportation is a _good_thing given how they do business right now and I actually like it better when they are forced to consider toll roads for some new roads…rather than just building new roads willy-nilly with increased funding.. from higher taxes.

    but no way is the govt going to put a device in your car that they can track.

    they might be able to convince people to allow their car to broadcast their odometer and vin at a service station.. and I will admit.. that even in that situation.. the Feds could get to that data …but at that point, if the Feds were getting to that level of data.. that would be the least of our problems!

    and I’ll fully admit that with cell phones and license plate scanners that they can effectively track you right now but it’s still a step too far.. right now especially with the NSA ugliness….

    but Accurate.. my man.. you have to be able to distinguish between what you think of the American people in general on these issues and what you believe yourself. I think the two things are different… I do not believe my views are entirely representative of most Americans.. and I allow some daylight between my personal views and my assessment of whether something will fly with most Americans.

    tracking cars / phones = no.. social security, Medicare = yes… Obamacare = the jury is still out but the propaganda ignores a lot of folks who benefit.

  9. FYI: In the late 1990s, England tested a VMT charging system and abandoned it as unworkable. Primarily, if memory serves (and it often doesn’t!), the issue wasn’t with privacy but with building a new bureaucracy to monitor/collect the charge in those pre-GPS days. Can the system be scammed? yep, the Brits said. So there needed to be a new agency wth enforcement powers.

    We already have a system and bureaucracy to collect gasoline and diesel taxes. Our for-all-practical-purposes bankrupt federal govt would not need to hire anyone else IF we just bite the bullet and raise taxes to a reasonable level. Right now, Americans pay virtually the exact same for gasoline that our great grandparents paid in 1920s (against income) and today only Mexico has lower average gasoline prices than we do.

    While with GPS, it would be harder to scam than the Brit’s experience but you can bet that someone will figure out how. One obvious thing: Why wouldn’t I, the driver, hold onto my OLD car which can’t be tracked for longer and longer, affecting new car sales. But, again, someone will figure out how.

    I love the ways drivers scam the London congestion charge. There’s a blackmarket in fake, magnetic license plates. Why? Because every car which passes the congestion charge zone is photographed and the fake license proves “It’s not my car!” when it comes collection time. Plus, a bunch of Londoners register their cars across the “Chunnel” in France with the concept that “Transport for London” will not never be able to collect in a foreign company (at least not without a new, expensive enforcement bureaucracy!). But the vast majority of drivers no longer drive into the city center, taking taxis or mass transit — where 80 percent, by law, of the charge income must be spent — so the system is generally working.

    Oddly, small business has turned out to be a major supporter of the charge zone. Why? The plumber/carpenter/delivery man/etc. have discovered they can charge each home they go to in any day for passing the congestion charge line, about $16 and, hence, it’s become an income stream!

    1. What about alternative fuel vehicles? How do they pay? And as we see more of them, the gas tax goes south.

  10. NewVirginia Avatar

    I think you’re missing the argument of Jim’s original post – which was essentially that this data is so readily available today. If you have a smartphone like most Americans, recent NSA revelations have ensured us that the government can already monitor your location if they want to. For better or for worse, the privacy argument is becoming more and more of a wash.

    And as I said earlier, there is no reason such a device would have to communicate a car’s exact location in real time. It would make much more sense for it to simply log miles traveled and charge the fee via transponders at gas stations whenever you fill up (that way if the transponders didn’t sense a VMT tracker the pump could charge you a gas tax).

    The more persuasive argument is the weight argument is weight. A general rule of thumb is that pavement damage increases as the square of weight per axle. There would have to be overweight fees to compensate for this added road damage, but road damage isn’t the only thing the VMT is paying for.

    Another problematic argument for me is that the gas tax is a good deterrent of harmful emissions – placing some kind of extremely minor cost on a major externality. A VMT tax would not do this. I would personally say that there should be a VMT tax to cover roads and a carbon tax on gas that had nothing to do with roads, but helped fund environmental efforts or compensated the general fund. But look here comes the anti-tax cavalry already to arrest me as a big ol’ socialist.

  11. I think just because we know the NSA / govt could/can track us, that we’re still not going to actually agree to enshrine it as a business practice.

    GPS is a receive only technology right now anyhow. The GPS is a receiver but yes.. there are GPS signal spoofers….as well as cell phone signal blockers but in both cases you also lose the basic functionality that provides you navigation and communication….

    magnetic plates – if they are counterfeit … the scanners are going to know as such plates get on the “hot” list and while one may evade the stationary cordon scanners… the scanners in police cars that look for “hot list” plates, are going to sound off at the point where the counterfeit car is visually in range of a human cop such as a mobile parking enforcement scanner… and my suspect is – the fines/penalty is going to swamp whatever toll “savings” were gained…

    A vehicle COULD broadcast via RFID technology BOTH odometer and VIN and the distance would be inches/feet not miles… it still would require retrofitting every single gas station and vehicle in the country and I can almost hear the uproar about “job killing regulations” right now.

    but before any of those things would be done – what is wrong with the recently changed tax method in Va where the fuel tax is indexed and the charge assessed at the distributor rather than at the pump? If they think the current index is insufficient, then why not just increase the index?

    What Virginia did was to actually MOVE the tax away from the point of sale and to the distributors… almost like a VAT tax….

    Also, the heavier the vehicle, the more fuel it uses.. 18-wheelers get what 4-5 mpg and diesel costs more than gasoline anyhow and we have weigh stations. Higher fees for heavier trucks, will not penalize the truckers anyhow as they will just incorporate those increased taxes into the delivery charges that get passed on to those who buy the products they deliver.

    I’m not sure the problem is heavier trucks that are driving transportation infrastructure costs anyhow – as much as SOV peak hour congestion is a driver.

    we pay more and more for maintenance but when you keep adding more total roads… then you’re adding more maintenance costs. Are our maintenance costs going up more than the miles we are adding? Remember – in Va, every new subdivision – adds more road maintenance costs to the state and it’s essentially a direct subsidy to those that live in subdivisions over those who live in apartments and townhouses, etc. Two guys that drive 20,000 miles a year and both pay the same tax – the guy in the apartment is paying for public roads we all use and the guy in the subdivision is essentially getting some of his taxes back to maintain the internal roads to his subdivision.

    So Virginia could fix that just like 46 other states do – subdivision roads belong to the HOA membership not the tax-paying public.

    and agree that any attempt to add on top of the core issues, additional taxes for carbon/emissions will blow the whole thing up….

    we cannot go there until 75-80% of voting citizens want it; that’s the legacy of our divided/polarized country these days and even with 75-80% of the country in support of something does not mean it still won’t be blocked by the 20% in Congress… as we are seeing with other issues.

  12. Quethero Avatar

    Virginia is one of the states with the ability to track mileage with out building a vast agancy to do so and without privacy concerns.
    VA requires the annual state inspection and all vehicles have an odometer. This could eaily enable a mileage tax for residents.

    My concern is how to capture the ‘tourists’ mileage- I humbly suggest a ‘travel permit’. Out of state driver pay a fee for entering VA and using our roads. Something silly like 5 or 10 dollars for 30 days of travel on VA Roads.
    IF you want to do something do it right….

  13. go the other problem also… Virginians going out of state .buying gas and paying taxes to other states then back to Va to get charged again.

    also what do you do about cars that are sold before the next inspection?

  14. GrayGhost Avatar

    Ahh, everyone forgets. If you have a cell phone. Smart or not, it has a federally required GPS. Tracking your movement via GPS is nothing new. It is actually illegal to activate a cell phone that doesn’t have GPS in it… Big brother has been watching you for years under the guise of the Patriot Act and Amber Alert law.

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