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Many people have started to cut their use of fossil fuels. Some because of the onerous price of gasoline, some to curtail global warming, and some because they want to embrace the up-and-coming technologies of alternative energy. Most of the outcomes of this movement have been positive things, but in 2003 the state of Oregon started worrying about what would happen if normal people began getting too good at not needing oil, and bought less gasoline—therefore paid less gasoline tax.

It’s not a problem at present, but legislators want to start thinking of the solution now in case hybrid gas/electric cars or fuel cell automobiles start cutting into their bottom line. Of two viable solutions, the legislators’ darling is to require every car on their highways to have a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit installed that will track where the automobile goes, tally the distance, and figure a fee for that. By this means they hope to make a fair and even tax where everyone pays for the miles they travel, regardless of how much fuel they use getting there–this is a good idea because an H2 causes just as much wear and tear on a road as a Hybrid Honda. Cough.

It is a reasonable fear that the money earmarked for the upkeep of roadways will dwindle and die, and inevitably an alternate source of funding will need to be found. One proposal would involve a means of reading a vehicle’s odometer to calculate the mileage tax. This is unacceptable to some because it fails to log in what state all the driving occurred, and cannot tell at what times this driving was done. That, and odometers have proven over time to be vulnerable to some manipulation by the less-than-scrupulous. Hence the GPS solution is fancied by those who think that GPS is invulnerable to human hacking.

Many people, however, fear that allowing the government to install tracking systems into our cars opens a serious privacy issue. There are sentiments that a third party would manage all the GPS data, and only surrender to the government what the user wants the government to see. Not unlike the odometer, however, it seems apparent that such a system could also be compromised, and since there is no way to opt out of the taxing program, any driver could be open to such exploitation. Data like one’s driving habits, schedule, and main haunts could then be available to people we don’t want to have it.

The state of California is eyeing the idea of a mileage tax hungrily, with the added notion of making the tax higher during peak driving hours. This is a win-win for them: either businesses get flexible and allow people to work different places at different times, thus acknowledging obedience to the government, or they just get a truckload more money from it!

The social engineering that could result from such a change, however, is interesting. Will fees based solely on distance cause people to cluster into more densely populated urban centers? Will it make for an increase to internet providers allowing for telecommuting? If there is no tax benefit for using fuel-efficient vehicles will it slow our divergence from foreign oil? Maybe we should examine the echelons of this idea to find if there are any owners of oil stock.

Further reading:
NPR Story
Wired News
CBS News story