Black Box For Cars Could Let The Government Tax You By The Mile

By Ben Wolford on October 28, 2013 4:20 PM EDT

A new black box tracking system for cars could allow the government to tax you by the mile.
A new black box tracking system for cars could allow the government to tax you by the mile.

Technology and taxes are colliding in Washington as policy makers look for new ways to refill the country's road-improvement fund. The answer, some say, is an assessment based on the number of miles each person drives, calculated by a little black box on every dash board.

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These little devices are nothing new. Black boxes log the flight data of commercial aircraft, and the same sort of technology is now being put to use in cars, as well. But until now, nobody had talked about installing mileage trackers inside the cars of every American.

Turns out, it was the solution to one problem that spawned this one.

The climate-friendly push for more fuel efficient cars led to a decrease in the amount of gasoline being purchased. That's been a good thing all around — unless you're the Highway Trust Fund. Congress set up the fund in the '50s to pay for the Interstate Highway System. Now it keeps the streets and certain public transit systems maintained with an 18.3 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. 

But with the fund is expected to be insolvent this year if nothing changes. Some, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have suggested raising the gas tax. Others say the black box is the only way.

"The gas tax is just not sustainable. This works out as the most logical alternative over the long term," Lee Munnich, of the University of Minnesota, told the Los Angeles Times.

Some states are testing the waters of such a plan, and as it gains federal momentum, civil liberties groups have grown concerned about how much information is going to be recorded and uploaded to Washington. The most basic level of data would just be mileage, but these black boxes have the capacity to record location, speed and even seat belt usage, though nobody's seriously suggested that.

The New York Times reported recently about the little-known black boxes inside 96 percent of all new cars in the United States. One of them came back to bite the former lieutenant governor of Massechusetts, who lied about his speed and his seat belt after he crashed his Crown Victoria, and debunked the lawsuit of a woman who tried to sue a motor company for her husband's death. These black boxes, however, are different from the ones in airplanes and the ones proposed now; they don't record data continuously, but just for a few seconds before a crash, according to The New York Times.

Already, the U.S. Senate tried to enact a pilot program, but House lawmakers from rural districts shot it down. They said people drive farther in the countryside than do city dwellers (though the current gas tax system already saddles longer drivers with a bigger tax).

"Concerns about Big Brother and those sorts of things were a major problem," Alauddin Khan, of the Nevada Department of Transportation, told the LA Times about that state's attempt to track cars' mileage, location and the times they were driven. Nevada shelved the idea.

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