August 8, 2022

EV Privacy Violations Down the Road

How will electric vehicle owners pay their “fair share” of the gas tax? By being tracked?

Federal and state governments are about to run into a predicament of their own making. Yeah, what else is new, right? This time, though, things could get very complicated.

Governments currently fund a healthy portion of maintenance and upgrades to the 164,000-mile national highway system with gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. These taxes account for 84% of federal and 29% of state highway funds. Drivers pay it at the pump as a consumption tax — the more you consume, the higher your tax burden.

Electric vehicle owners don’t pay a gas tax for obvious reasons. Yet they and their taxpayer-subsidized rides use the roads like everyone else, so there’s significant tax disparity. And now that the government is doing everything short of mandating that we all switch to electric cars, that disparity is only going to get worse.

Federal and state governments, always on the hunt for new sources of revenue, are looking for solutions. One short-term fix has been to charge EV owners a higher registration fee for their vehicles, in some cases double that paid by gas-powered auto owners. But this does not account for how many miles of public highway the EV owner will use. Owners who drive less, generally people who are older and/or have lower incomes, will be hit disproportionately.

Another proposal is to tax drivers for the electricity they pull off the grid at public charging stations. This is workable, and along the lines of the consumption-style tax that gas auto owners pay. But what about the EV owner who powers up at home?

One solution that is gaining momentum is to tax EV drivers by directly monitoring their miles. The technology currently exists to track how many miles an EV travels on taxable public highways. This can be done via an internal GPS unit in the car, an app on the driver’s phone, or monitoring plates with electronic eyes, which is already done on toll roads. Much like the toll road model, a regular tax bill would be sent to your house or your tax would be automatically debited from your account.

This means that the government agencies who monitor your miles will have access to where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. It is the ultimate invasion of privacy against one of this country’s greatest freedoms — anonymous travel.

Last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorized the Department of Transportation to launch pilot programs to find ways to effectively collect fees from the growing EV driver population. States like Minnesota, Iowa, and Nevada are already running these programs, and more are expected to follow.

The Government Accountability Office published a report in January on state pilot programs. The report stated, “Public acceptance of mileage fee systems remains limited by concerns about protecting privacy.”

It’s no surprise. The government’s track record in such matters is not stellar, and one data breach can expose the privacy of thousands or millions of drivers. This does not consider that citizens cannot trust that the government will do only what is specifically required with the information they gather. Data gathering can be limited specifically to driver miles — follow the odometer and nothing else. But will it?

Any technology used to track EV miles could be adapted to all vehicles. It would make the entire American highway system pay-as-you-go. It would also allow the government to track every driver on the road. Before this moves forward, a larger discussion about privacy rights needs to take place.

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