RENO – The Nevada Department of Transportation says technology it is testing to track car mileage as part of a potential new tax system would not violate drivers’ privacy.
NDOT is in the second phase of a multi-year study of the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, which would replace the existing fuel tax and be levied based on the number of miles a car travels rather than the amount of gas it consumes.
During the first phase of the study, completed last year, NDOT looked at many aspects of the VMT tax, including various workable technologies and a number of policy issues. Based on public feedback, the agency concluded that privacy was the number one concern.
“What we heard out of phase one is how important privacy was, the tracking of vehicles, so in phase two we got rid of that element altogether,” said R. Scott Rawlins, deputy director of NDOT at a public information meeting held on July 21.
“No one wants Big Brother watching them,” added Alauddin Khan, NDOT’s chief performance analysis engineer working on the project.
NDOT, in cooperation with the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is now in the process of conducting a field test with 25 drivers in Las Vegas whose cars have been equipped with sensors connected to the automobile’s existing on-board diagnostics port. (All cars manufactured since 2003 have so-called OBD ports, which most automobile mechanics now use for computerized diagnostics.)
The Chevron gas station at the corner of Maryland and Tropicana in Las Vegas has been equipped with wireless technology that reads the cars’ odometers each time drivers in the test group come in to fill up their gas tanks.
Drivers can pump the gas and leave, without any human intervention, while the sensor sends their car’s odometer data to a computer inside the gas station. Drivers can also choose to collect a receipt inside the station to keep track of their mileage and tax.
The NODT study is not testing the collection of the fee, which could be handled in a number of ways, including at the point of purchase or on a monthly or even annual basis.
The technology costs about $20 per car in this trial phase, according to UNLV assistant professor Alexander Paz, who is part of the team developing the system. Paz said the technology would be less expensive in a wider roll out.
The third phase of the NDOT study, planned for next year, would test the technology in as many as 1,500 vehicles.
Citizens who attended the public meeting expressed their concerns with the program.
“A lot of my questions had to do with the security of the data and how they were going to record mileage that would end up being truly anonymous,” said Ron Nichols, a Reno resident who was one of a handful of area residents at the NDOT gathering. “So I saw a potential big issue with data privacy.”
Nichols said the technology being tested allayed some of his concerns, but he said he was still uncertain how the data would remain anonymous.
He and others who attended the meeting also saw another potential pitfall to the VMT.
Will drivers be taxed twice for miles driven in another state? If, for example, a Nevada driver travels into California, buys gas there and pays that state’s fuel tax, would the driver also pay VMT tax on those miles when they return to a gas pump in Nevada?
“If I fill up in Wendover and my odometer reads 10,000 miles, then I drive all over the country and come back and my odometer reads 20,000 miles, how will that work?” asked Nichols. “It would have to be implemented countrywide,and the chances of that are zero.”
“My main interest is if you do a lot of traveling, how is this going to add up?” said Steve Keller, a retired Reno resident who drives to his second home in Monterey, Calif., twice each month. “Where’s the fairness in that?”
Rawlins said concern over double-taxation could be mitigated by a reporting system much like the system used today by long-haul truckers. But he and others conceded that for a VMT tax to work, it would likely have to be implemented nationwide.
Because of that, Rawlins said a viable VMT system is at least ten to 15 years away from reality.
More than a dozen states are looking at the VMT, and NDOT is part of the Mileage Based User Fee Alliance, a group comprised of officials from the states that are considering the tax. The Obama administration, however, recently backtracked on support of the VMT, so its future is unknown.
The NDOT field test is costing $400,000 and is being paid for by federal dollars and in-kind donations from UNLV. It will conclude in October with a report expected in early 2012.
NDOT’s Rawlins predicts a workable VMT tax is at least a decade away: