Privacy

Follow That Car

Gas tax alternative

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When new technologies eliminate the need for cars to burn fossil fuels, how will governments collect tax revenues to build and maintain roads? A new study by the University of Iowa is testing an innovative and perverse solution: Bug the cars.

The study, funded by the Federal Highway Administration and a consortium of nine concerned states, is outfitting a fleet of vehicles with onboard computers that use global positioning satellites to calculate mileage and send this info to a third party, probably the federal government. The hypothetical tax is based on miles driven, rather than on type of vehicle or weight.

Addressing the protests of civil libertarians, project manager David Forkenbrock told the Des Moines Register, "We are taking every pain to make sure that people's privacy is not disturbed." As evidence, he noted that the prototype system "doesn't say that you traveled on 42nd Street at 2 a.m. Thursday morning."

Such assurances do not go far enough for state Sen. Bill Bullard (R-Mich.). As a representative in a state that is part of the nine-member body, he has introduced legislation to ban toll tracking, denouncing it as a Big Brother measure.

"I don't think we want government in possession of the knowledge of how many miles somebody drives in a given period of time, or potentially where they are going every minute of every given day," Bullard says. "The privacy implications are horrendous."

Given the latest advances in GPS technology, the government could measure that particular slippery slope to the nearest 20 centimeters.