Should Road User Charging be Introduced along with Driverless Vehicles?

I was happy to find that a consistent theme at the ITS World Congress this year was on the importance of shifting to road user charging to fund infrastructure investments. The idea behind road user charging is that people pay fees based on how many miles a vehicle travels. Road user charging pilots are currently happening in many states, including California, Oregon, and Colorado; in addition to being established in places around the world, including Germany and New Zealand.  This is a seemingly logical consideration for government for the following reasons:

  • Many governments rely upon fuel tax revenues to fund infrastructure and the purchasing power of fuel tax revenues has declined as vehicles have become more fuel efficient and the tax hasn’t been increased enough to keep up with inflation or infrastructure spending needs.
  • Driverless vehicles have the potential to be all electric (so they’ll generate no fuel tax revenues) and to enable increased vehicle miles traveled. By charging people based on their distance traveled, this tax may discourage unnecessary trips (which is a significant concern in a driverless society).

The potential for road user charging becomes even more significant when the government considers how it might support a wide range of governmental goals.  Road user charging rates could be adjusted based on the following types of variations:

  • Charging based on time in order to reduce peak travel congestion;
  • Charging based on a cordoned area to reduce congestion in that specific region;
  • Charging based on vehicle occupancy could incentivize sharing (and, conversely, disincentivize zero and single-occupancy vehicle trips);
  • Charging based on a vehicle’s impact to the roadway (e.g., charging more for heavy vehicles or for sudden acceleration and braking)
  • Charging based on the fuel efficiency of a vehicle to encourage reduced greenhouse gas emissions; and/or
  • Charging based on road types to discourage non-local vehicles traveling on local streets;

Despite the fact that will be a challenge to implement, I believe that road user charging has the potential to be introduced at the same time as driverless vehicles. Why not leverage the excitement around the adoption of a new technology by introducing a new (and desperately needed) funding mechanism for infrastructure spending?

About Lauren Isaac

I am the Manager of Transportation Sustainability at Parsons Brinckerhoff. Recently, I won the William Barclay Parsons fellowship for my research proposal to study how the United States government should respond to driverless cars. As I'm working on my research, I thought this blog would help to disseminate my findings and provide a forum for feedback.
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9 Responses to Should Road User Charging be Introduced along with Driverless Vehicles?

  1. ruttbridges says:

    Lauren, thanks for producing an excellent blog, and for your thoughtful comments on the important issue of funding (or lack thereof) for our roads and highways. As mileage continues to improve and lower battery, etc, costs push more EV onto our highways, this problem only gets worse — though many other problems get much better! Penalties for empty AV miles combined with no charge for those who rideshare, especially during rush hours, are great suggestions.
    However, almost all road damage comes from heavy trucks and buses rather than passenger cars, since road damage rises with the fourth (some argue third) power of a vehicle’s weight per axle (http://www.pavementinteractive.org/article/equivalent-single-axle-load/). A fully-loaded five-axle 18 wheeler does about 10,000 times as much damage as a 4,000-pound two-axle SUV. In fact, Chapter 610, Pavement Engineering Considerations, of the CA CDOT Highway Design Manual states “Passenger cars and pickups are considered to have a negligible effect when determining traffic loads.”
    So differentiating road tax by passenger vehicle weight, though a popular idea, may not be as logical as it first appears. Small detail, I know… but otherwise, great overview of an important issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken Pyle says:

    I agree that the timing for this conversation is today.

    Cities be putting the policies in place today, that anticipate what will be needed for tomorrow’s self-driving cars. Even if these policies aren’t perfect or suggest things that can’t necessarily be easily measured today, it could be that guidelines like these would help manufacturers anticipate the sort of measures they need to incorporate into the end products and offerings.

    From a political standpoint, it would be easier to impose fees on externalities before people get used to them being “free” (such as the case with street parking, today, for example). The fees go beyond road charges, however, and could include surcharges, such as, say a daily or monthly surcharge for zero or one passenger use.

    Providing a price would send a strong signal to the market, as far as the potential demand for different vehicle use-cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shelvacu says:

    The most important question is how are you going to measure this? GPS and measuring number of times the wheel turns are both inaccurate, and very hard to implement in a way that is hard to cheat. It’d be even harder to measure sudden braking reliably and keep that information recorded and not modifiable.

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  4. ruttbridges says:

    Any attempt to measure mileage (or any other physical characteristic) has some inherent level of inaccuracy. There are modern precision digital odometers that are better than those on your father’s Buick. The question is whether the inaccuracy is large enough to make a significant difference in payments. Will the charge is substantial enough that people are willing to break the law in order to save a relatively modest amount of money? Will there be enough people with the technical sophistication to cheat, and is it worth the risk?

    Regarding pricing of the tax per mile, here is an excerpt from a draft of my next book:
    “How much per mile? Today’s average conventional light passenger vehicle gets 23.2 miles per gallon [10]. The average U.S. state plus federal gasoline tax is 48.04 cents per gallon [11], so on average fuel taxes currently cost 2.07 cents per mile. This rate seems fair for electric vehicles, though state taxes may vary. Both mileage taxes and fuel taxes should also be annually adjusted for inflation to stabilize tax revenue over time. However, as this book demonstrates, ridesharing provides enormous financial and environmental benefits both to government and individuals. Politicians should consider exempting electric vehicles that carry two or more people. At the other extreme, there should be a steep mileage tax to discourage empty driverless cars from circling the block while their owners shop.”

    10. “Table 4-23, Average Fuel Efficiency of U.S. Light Duty Vehicles, 2014,” U.S. DOT, Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
    11. “Gasoline Tax,” American Petroleum Institute, 2016.

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    • Ken Pyle says:

      Ruttbridges, to your earlier comment, shouldn’t the charge also factor in the weight of the vehicle, given the dramatic impact of wear and tear due to vehicle size?

      By the way, I am participating in California’s Road Charge Program and am using a device that plugs into the OBD2 port. Combined with the cloud-based software, I am able to tell how many miles I (or my teenage son) has driven, where they have driven and who the better driver is (he is). I can even find my car. Despite the big brother potential, I think it solves the concerns brought up by Shelvacu.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ruttbridges says:

        Ken, I believe that the weight of the vehicle is only relevant for commercial trucks and other much heavier vehicles. Here’s an excerpt from my earlier comment (see above):

        “A fully-loaded five-axle 18 wheeler does about 10,000 times as much damage as a 4,000-pound two-axle SUV. In fact, Chapter 610, Pavement Engineering Considerations, of the CA CDOT Highway Design Manual states “Passenger cars and pickups are considered to have a negligible effect when determining traffic loads.”

        (endquote)

        Note: “traffic loads” in this context refer to the potential for road damage.

        While it is common practice in some states to consider vehicle weight for determining annual vehicle taxes, it takes roughly 10,000 personal vehicles to match the road damage done by a single fully-loaded 18 wheeler. However, from a congestion perspective, the passenger vehicles drive most of the need for expanding our highways, so it only seems fair that they contribute to highway fuel use taxes. But weight differences do not appear to be the driving concern (sorry, I couldn’t help myself on that choice of words!).

        Ken, I loved your comments on your driving versus your teenage son — I’m not a great driver either! But I do think privacy is a particularly important issue to many people… though less so for younger demographics, many of whom seem willing to trade privacy for convenience. Or maybe they just have less questionable history to hide…

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      • Ken Pyle says:

        Yes, I was thinking that the weight would mostly apply to commercial vehicles and buses and that the road charges whould be apportioned accordingly. My thinking is that this would encourage the creation of smaller vehicles for use on tertiary roads (e.g. autonomous, driverless and lighter weight garbage trucks that feed traditional garbage trucks that are on main roads). Similarly, this would provide an incentive for larger transit and private buses to utilize main roads, while smaller, lower weight ride-sharing solutions (e.g. Easy Mile-like solutions) would serve the last-mile.

        Even before autonomous vehicles get here, cities could reduce wear and tear through some simple improvements. For instance, in my neighborhood, the garbage truck picks up the garbage cans on one side of the street and then comes back to pick the garbage cans on the other side of the street. If we all put our garbage cans on one side of the street, that would save 50% wear and tear (although we might have to alternate which side of the street the garbage cans are on to distribute the wear and tear).

        Yes, thank goodness, the mileage tracker didn’t exist when I was younger, as my license probably would have been pulled years ago.

        Looking forward to reading your book!

        Like

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