Americans are burning less gas. This presents a terrible problem, one that demands immediate action.
At least, that's what we're being told by government officials who say they need more money. While getting Americans to use less gas has been a national priority at least since the double-nickel speed limits during the era of national malaise, now that Americans are actually doing it, the government has to deal with lower gas tax revenues: Since the tax is collected on a per-gallon basis, when people buy fewer gallons, there's less money for the government.
The response in many places -- from to and points in between -- has been to propose taxing people based on the miles that they drive rather than on the gas that they burn. There are even test programs going on in several states in which GPS trackers are being used to collect drivers' mileage. Needless to say, this sort of thing has people worried about privacy, especially in the wake of the recent scandals involving government spying and abuse of data. It also raises the question of whether, by moving to a mileage tax, we're giving up on trying to get people to save gas.
A GPS-based tracking system appeals to the authorities for obvious reasons: It knows exactly how much you've driven, and in which states, making it easy to apportion revenue. It frightens privacy advocates and creeps out ordinary Americans for pretty much the same reason: It knows exactly how much, and where, you've driven. One of the great things about driving a car is the freedom that it involves, and part of that freedom is the ability to go anywhere without buying tickets, checking in, or otherwise operating under someone else's nose.
That freedom would disappear with a GPS-based mileage tax. In fact, since such systems would probably be accessible wirelessly, they might even allow authorities to locate you in real time, or be alerted immediately if you're speeding. Promises that that capability wouldn't be abused are likely to ring hollow to many. (They certainly ring hollow to me).
There are two responses to these concerns: One is that you don't really have much privacy anyway. Authorities can already track you via your cellphone, which checks in with towers along your route even when you aren't using it, and many localities are building up that . And vehicle informatics systems like OnStar also know where your vehicle is and can be accessed remotely, while plug-in devices like Progressive Insurance's Snapshot keep tabs on your driving habits in ways that go well beyond location.
So, relax: You're not losing your privacy. You've already lost your privacy!
For those who don't find this response reassuring, there are some simpler alternatives: Every car already includes a built-in mileage recorder—it's called an odometer. A highway tax based on odometer readings wouldn't be high-tech, but it also wouldn't invade anyone's privacy. And a formula that would roughly account for in-state vs. out-of-state driving shouldn't be hard to come up with.
Simpler still, of course, would be an increase in the gas tax. Politicians don't like that, because tax increases are never popular, and gas is already expensive enough. But, of course, the mileage tax would be a tax increase too, since the whole reason it's being proposed is because the highway administrators want more money than they're getting now. If you're going to pay more anyway, why give up your privacy to boot, just so that politicians can pretend something else is going on? And the gas tax is still a pretty good proxy for road use: The heavier the vehicle and the more it drives, the more gas it burns and the more tax its owner pays. Hybrids get better mileage (though often no better than diesels) but that's not enough to undermine this much, and pure-electric cars are a tiny fraction of those on the road, and that isn't likely to change any time very soon.
To politicians—and, I suspect, to the companies that want to make and sell the tracking gadgets, and get the contracts to process the data for governments—these simple approaches are unsatisfactory precisely because they're simple. But for the rest of us, and certainly for me, car trackers and mileage taxes seem creepy and heavy-handed.
It's bad enough that I'm recorded on video in every store or government building I visit, that various intelligence and law enforcement agencies are hoovering up emails and tracking online behavior, that every dime I make is scrutinized by the IRS and every dollar I spend is in some commercial database. But this is too much.
Don't track me, bro. Privacy is hard enough to come by as it is. At least leave me alone in my car.
Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, blogs about technology and freedom at .