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A new mileage tax may replace the gas tax in Oregon. Oregon residents will be taxed by the number of miles travelled, as they travel along the state's highways like Highway 30 pictured here. Those not participating will face higher taxes at the pump.  (Source: Lyn Topinka)
A new ambitious high-tech effort to fairly distribute roadwork taxes proposed in Oregon, but can it overcome fears of government tracking?

Nobody likes to pay taxes, but they are reality of modern U.S. government as we know it.  However, if you have to pay taxes, you at least want them to be fair.  That's the mentality driving a rather revolutionary, albeit controversial, new plan in the state of Oregon.

In Oregon, as in other states, people have long complained about using fuel taxes to finance road work.  Such measures place a larger tax burden on those in professions requiring heavier vehicles.  So Oregon's Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) has developed a new plan -- pay by mileage.

Oregon, whose highways recently gained attention via a new solar project, is now looking to legislate the governor's plan.  The new legislation will provide Oregon with "a path to transition away from the gas tax as the central funding source for transportation" via a mileage tax implemented with the help of GPS satellites.

While the exact details are still being ironed out, Gov. Kulongoski's web page gives the basics of the plan.  In it he states, "As Oregonians drive less and demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, it is increasingly important that the state find a new way, other than the gas tax, to finance our transportation system."

He is creating a task force "to partner with auto manufacturers to refine technology that would enable Oregonians to pay for the transportation system based on how many miles they drive."  Key studies were performed in 2006 and 2007 that indicate that such a program would indeed be possible. 

In the 2007 test which lasted 10 months with 300 motorists at two service stations, drivers were taxed 1.2 cents per mile and were refunded the 24 cents a gallon state gas tax.  When the motorists got to the pump, their vehicles connected to government computers informing them of the mileage (calculated via GPS tracking) and issuing tax.  Equipment for the test came from Oregon State University.

While clever, the program faces one enormous thorny obstacle -- concerns over the loss of privacy. 

The governor's online outline states, "The governor is committed to ensuring that rural Oregon is not adversely affected and that privacy concerns are addressed."

Despite assurances from James Whitty, the ODOT official in charge of the project, that the new GPS system would not be used for continuous tracking of citizens' cars, many advocacy groups are outraged and many remain fearful.  The final report on the 2007 test deployment was conscious of this fear, stating, "The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history.  Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements."

Advocates point out that the devices are not developed by Oregon, but rather by industry partners.  The program's policy page states, "ODOT would have no involvement in developing the on-vehicle devices, installing them in vehicles, maintaining them or having any other access to them except, perhaps, in situations involving tampering or similar fee evasion activities."

However, even if privacy concerns can be laid to rest, there will also be a large price tag associated with initially implementing the program, one which may give residents sticker shock.  An initial investment of $20M USD would be needed, according to the governor, just to see if the program was viable.  A full deployment would require GPS be gradually added to gas stations and to all vehicles in the state.

The proposal also calls for a punitive tax against those not adopting the new device -- the gas tax will continue for vehicles not equipped to pay the mileage tax, but it will be increased 2 cents.

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By Motoman on 12/31/2008 11:13:20 AM , Rating: 2
...tracking where citizens drive? Don't think so.

And if they did, *bing*, new industry for GPS (or whatever) jammers pops up. New market for radar detector companies.

RE: Fail.
By wushuktl on 12/31/2008 11:17:49 AM , Rating: 3
"The concept requires no transmission of vehicle travel locations, either in real time or of travel history. Accordingly, no travel location points are stored within the vehicle or transmitted elsewhere. Thus there can be no ‘tracking’ of vehicle movements."

RE: Fail.
By Motoman on 12/31/2008 11:37:45 AM , Rating: 2
(calculated via GPS tracking)

It's right there. "oh trust us, we're only getting the raw mileage driven from the GPS tracking, we won't be getting any of the other data that is collectable by GPS tracking in exactly the same manner."


RE: Fail.
By rudolphna on 12/31/2008 12:06:15 PM , Rating: 2
do I spy a conspiracy theory?

RE: Fail.
By tastyratz on 12/31/2008 12:16:28 PM , Rating: 2
and at&t was not conducting wiretaps either.

The raw reality is gps is unnecessary for something like this.

Road vehicles already have a system in place for this and its free. It's called a speed sensor. Conduct yearly vehicle inspections that include odometer readings and setup a payment plan based on the yearly usage for the following year. No potential for abuse, no controversy, no problem. Systems already are in place and it would work fine.

This wont work for semi's and other drivers with interstate travel (how many people actually LIVE in oregon anyways. Its like wyoming population 7)

The semi's will just register in another state and always fill up their for the cheaper gas.

RE: Fail.
By mal1 on 12/31/2008 12:27:27 PM , Rating: 2
"That government is best which governs least."

-Thomas Paine

RE: Fail.
By ZmaxDP on 12/31/2008 1:04:56 PM , Rating: 3
Um, did you read the article?

The whole point is to more fairly distribute taxes so that larger, less fuel efficient vehicles like semis would pay LESS. The more inefficient (lower MPG) your car is, the better this is for you. Let's say the state charges 1.2 cents per mile or 26 cents per gallon. If your average mpg is less than 21.666mpg, then this works out great for you as you'll pay less in taxes. If you're dead on, then it doesn't matter. If you're more efficient then you'll pay more taxes than you currently pay. It's actually more likely that Prius owners near the state borders will drive to Washington to gas up than semis.

The biggest challenge for semis is how does the state handle out of state travel? I am guessing this is why the GPS is needed over the odometer. The GPS knows when you're in state, and out of state.

If the GPS chips they put in cars for this had no tracking storage, and basically only output a yes/no (in state, out of state) and the digital odometer just kept two tabs (total milage and in-state milage) I can see how this would potentially work without violating any privacy issues.

Ironically, a lot of cars already have GPS built in with much more sophisticated capabilities than this that are completely exposed to the private corporations that make the vehicles (on-star anyone?). No one has really raised the conspiracy flag about that.

I'm more concerned about a private company knowing my whereabouts at all time than I am about the government. If they get an idea to abuse the information a private company is far more likely to be competent at doing so...

RE: Fail.
By gstrickler on 12/31/2008 5:37:02 PM , Rating: 2
Ironically, a lot of cars already have GPS built in with much more sophisticated capabilities than this that are completely exposed to the private corporations that make the vehicles (on-star anyone?). No one has really raised the conspiracy flag about that.

I'm more concerned about a private company knowing my whereabouts at all time than I am about the government. If they get an idea to abuse the information a private company is far more likely to be competent at doing so...

Agreed, in theory. However, OnStar and other standard GPS units use GPS only to determine the current location of the vehicle, they don't continually store or transmit the location of the vehicle. With OnStar, when you're in a crash, the system uses a built-in cell phone/modem to call the OnStar computer and then report your current location (and not where you have been).

Some of the units designed for off-road use do have a form of tracking that the user can enable/disable for the purpose of leaving a trail of "virtual bread crumbs" from the point at which you left the known road(s) so you can follow that trail back to the road. Again, that feature is limited to certain units, the information is kept internally only, is deleted at some point, and can be disabled entirely by the user.

Charging by the mile is certainly a worse system than the admittedly imperfect per gallon system we use now. Weight x mileage might be better in theory, but it would be much more expensive to track the mileage. Weight x mileage has other flaws because a heavy vehicle is causing more wear than a lighter one, even when sitting still (e.g. parked, at a stop light/sign, idling in traffic, etc.) and each time you start or stop (e.g. at a traffic signal) you cause additional wear). Also, a vehicle that traverses a lot of bridges is "costing" more than one that uses primarily surface streets. Mileage without a lot of additiona info isn't a particularly good metric.

I used to drive a lot of miles, but they were almost all highway miles. Now I drive about 70% less distance, but the time is only reduced by about 30% because it's now almost all surface streets (with lots more traffic signals). My average fuel economy dropped about 15%, so I'm paying about 15% more per mile than I used to, which helps balance out all the extra wear due to traffic signals.

Per gallon is imperfect, but I can't think of a better system (one that's more accurate/fair, low cost to administer, maintains privacy, etc.)

Electric vehicles (and to a lesser degree hybrids) do alter the equation as they use no (or less gas), so they're not paying (as much). However, those are still such a small percentage of vehicles that it's not worth changing the current system yet. Someone could make a good case for not taxing those vehicles (as much) at this time as they're helping reduce our dependence on oil imports.

Overall, a good post.

RE: Fail.
By Fritzr on 1/2/2009 12:27:48 AM , Rating: 2
One of the "features" OnStar does NOT advertise is that they can activate the system remotely. In short OnStar can by by pressing a button get a location reading for any OnStar equipped car. They can also turn on the in car microphone and record "ambient noise". This is how they can pre-emptively contact you if they suspect you need help. The police can (and have) require OnStar to activate the mic and record the occupants ... search warrant required unless of course the FBI presents a National Security Letter or other accepted waiver of the constitution.

For your current location all that is required is a police officer stating that they are tracking a suspect and would the OnStar operator kindly look up the suspect's current location.

The Oregon proposal sounds like it offers a lot more protection of privacy than OnStar equipped cars currently offer. BTW unless you cut the power to the OnStar hardware, you can be sure that OnStar can activate nonsubscribers when asked to do so ... Welcome to a Brave New World :D

RE: Fail.
By Fritzr on 1/2/2009 12:15:12 AM , Rating: 2
The article states that there is an opt out option. The per gallon tax paid by those opting out is the same one that would be paid by out of state vehicles. In the article they say as an example that the current 26 cent tax would drop to 1.2 cents for participants and jump to 28 cents for non-participants.

So to decide if you want to opt out you calculate your mileage ... calculate the tax both ways and then opt out if you have a fuel efficient vehicle.

This plan offers a flat rate per mile for those who want to put 450ci V8s in their muscle car ... they would pay a lot less gas tax by opting in ... On the other hand the Prius Hybrid would opt out if it could deliver an average of 40-60mpg overall. In the one case the per gallon discount is enough to drop the cost per gallon, in the other case the miles per gallon makes the tax excessive.

RE: Fail.
By FITCamaro on 12/31/2008 12:41:14 PM , Rating: 2
Why not go off the odometer instead of GPS? Probably more accurate and far cheaper to implement.

RE: Fail.
By RMSe17 on 12/31/2008 12:54:41 PM , Rating: 2
I was just about to post that. You have to come in every year to renew your registration. Now they can just take a reading off the odometer while you register for next year. Simple, efficient. Oh, but since you cant track someone this way, it will probably not be implemented.

RE: Fail.
By Yawgm0th on 12/31/2008 1:02:07 PM , Rating: 2
An odometer is about the only thing I can think of that's more easily circumvented than a GPS tracking system.

Any implementation of this is going to be fundamentally flawed from a technical standpoint.

RE: Fail.
By abscoder on 12/31/2008 1:02:38 PM , Rating: 2
Because the state would either have to take drivers' word (unlikely when it comes to taxes) or have you show up somewhere to check it themselves (costly).

Many car's odometers can be easily disabled. As an example, the odometer in the Grand Cherokee I had years ago could be rendered worthless by pulling a fuse. For modern OBDII vehicles it's harder, I imagine, but can probably still be done my unplugging the wheel speed or equivalent sensor. I'll have to play with my STi this weekend to see if I can disable it, because now I just have to know. :)

RE: Fail.
By FITCamaro on 12/31/2008 1:27:11 PM , Rating: 3
Ok but disabling an odometer is a crime. One that I think very few people are willing to go to jail for. Unless you never plan to sell your car again, you'd be stupid to tamper with the odometer since when you sold it you'd have to tell the person that the mileage was off by thousands of miles. So if you do it and tell them, you're guilty of tax evasion. If you don't, you're guilty of fraud.

Maybe you're willing to go to prison or face harsh penalties. But I'm not.

RE: Fail.
By Fritzr on 1/2/2009 12:31:16 AM , Rating: 2
Yep it's a crime to sell a car with an odometer that has been 'adjusted'. That law was created many years before this idea was thought up simply due to the number of sellers who understand you can get a higher price for a low mileage car. Nothing new there

RE: Fail.
By tastyratz on 12/31/2008 2:44:01 PM , Rating: 2
odometer can easily be faked, but a gps is not infallible as well. They wont always have reception, so who's to say you don't just turn the thing off 4 days a week and say your a low mileage driver?
The thing wont know the difference between being off or driving under a bridge.

This puts the foot in the door for a lot of things we don't want. After that we will see speeding tickets issued based on "readings from existing gps install base" and 911 call tracking will turn into the government having the ability to track any car at will. Then the system will get hacked and privacy? well it was nice knowing it.
This isn't going overboard to the tune of orwelian, but only a hop and skip away if government mandated gps systems went in place.

If a program went in for this there are too many reasons why it wouldn't work out well anyways as a single state program - it could only be implemented practically on a federal level.

RE: Fail.
By Fritzr on 1/2/2009 12:42:23 AM , Rating: 2
As an Oregon program you need to deal with out of state mileage and gas purchases.
As a Federal program you need to deal with out of country mileage and gas purchases.

Just as semis routinely drive interstate routes they also routinely drive international routes.

Just as Oregon will deal with Washington, Idaho & California drivers, a national program will need to deal with Canadian, Mexican and a sprinkling of South American cars that will drive into and in the US under their own power.

At any level below worldwide you need to plan for vehicles that are not part of the system and for vehicles in the system to travel beyond it's boundaries.

As far as tracking is concerned it is implicit. The GPS identifies the car it is reporting on. Even if it doesn't report it's position, that information is available from the cell towers it is reporting to. Unless of course it is recording the info and bursting it at intervals (actually this capability will be required due to areas where GPS will be out of range of receivers)

They say there will be no recording, but a working system will need to keep records to ensure accurate reporting, so you can be sure that will be added as an essential "upgrade" as soon as it the system is well accepted.

RE: Fail.
By rcc on 12/31/2008 3:51:17 PM , Rating: 4
In order for the GPS unit to calculate distance, it has to have the waypoints. It may, or may not, delete them, but it has to have them for a period of time.

And, as a side note, if it can calcuate distance, it can also calculate speed. So, as it doles out tax bills, it can write a ticket for your max speed since your last fillup.

RE: Fail.
By foolsgambit11 on 12/31/2008 9:07:33 PM , Rating: 2
You don't need a jammer. Just wrapping some tin foil around the GPS will keep it from locating your position - therefore keep it from counting miles. Or you can wrap the tin foil around your cranium. Barring that, rather than a jammer, people will develop a black box you can plug into the GPS (using the plug for reading the GPS) that will roll back the miles some reasonable amount - not enough to be suspicious, but enough to save some money on taxes.

It seems to me like the GPS is way more susceptible to being tampered with than an odometer reading.

But it is possible to build a custom GPS that has no capability to store locational data, just a running odometer total. The question becomes, why?

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain
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