Black boxes for cars

This device is being developed by True Mileage in Long Beach to measure and report annual mileage traveled without using GPS data. Although it was intended for insurers offering mileage-based discounts, some states are exploring using similar devices to determine how much a driver may owe in mileage-based taxes. (Los Angeles Times / October 24, 2013)

The caption for the accompanying photo has been corrected, as indicated below.

If ever there's a time for the government to track how many miles individual Americans drive, now isn't it.

My colleague Evan Halper reported Monday that state and federal officials are mulling a new approach to raising money for highway and road construction and repairs: by installing a "black box" of sorts in vehicles to measure and report the miles traveled. The owner of the vehicle would then pay a mileage-based tax into a fund for transportation infrastructure.

The idea is to find a replacement for the tax on gasoline, which faces a growing shortfall. The federal government collects 18.44 cents on each gallon of conventional fuel sold, about 83% of which goes toward road projects. (The tax per gallon of diesel fuel is 24.44 cents, almost 90% of which is dedicated to highways.) With people driving more fuel-efficient cars, however, the gas tax isn't generating enough money to maintain the buying power of the Highway Trust Fund, let alone keep up with the country's infrastructure needs.

SLIDE SHOW: 10 reasons to salute L.A.'s transportation future

One obvious option would be to increase the tax, which hasn't changed since 1993. But such a move seems like a nonstarter in this Congress, despite the bipartisan interest in improving the country's infrastructure.

Besides, if the goal is to make users of the roads pay for their upkeep, the gas tax isn't a well-calibrated way to do so. That's because highly efficient cars pay less per mile traveled than inefficient ones. Granted, there's an inverse relationship between a vehicle's weight and its fuel efficiency, and a direct relationship between a car or truck's weight and how much it wears down a road. But why should a hybrid version of a Ford Fusion contribute half as much per mile traveled to the Highway Trust Fund as the conventional version, which weighs no more than the hybrid?

Which brings us back to the black box idea. It's technologically possible to install a device in cars that could automatically tell the government how many miles it traveled. That data could then be used to calculate how much the driver would pay into the Highway Trust Fund.

Such an approach would not, by itself, be a perfect measure of the wear and tear a vehicle inflicted on the roads. That's because a giant recreational vehicle would be charged the same amount per mile as a featherweight Fiat 500. That problem could be fixed in a straightforward way, though, by tying the charge per mile to a vehicle's weight and other characteristics.

There are at least two larger problems with mileage-tracking devices, however. First, the public is acutely sensitive these days to government data collection, thanks to the trust-destroying revelations about the National Security Agency's prodigious surveillance activities. If the boxes measured miles by tracking a vehicle's travel via GPS, the boxes could conceivably be used by law enforcement agencies to watch someone's movements in real time, or use the information retrospectively in a search for criminal suspects. With that in mind, how eager might you be to have one of these boxes under your hood?

Second, the whole user-based approach to highway funding ignores the broad public interest in having a great system of roads and bridges. The economy depends on the efficient movement of goods from producers to consumers. Even if you never spend a minute behind the wheel of a car, you still rely on trucks to deliver food to your local grocer, packages to your door, cash to and from retailers, and so on.

In fact, every American has an equal interest in that aspect of the economy. Rich or poor, young or old, we all rely on commerce and the movement of goods. So it makes sense to pay for infrastructure in part through a levy that's broad and unavoidable.

That said, if the privacy issues can be overcome, putting black boxes in cars might be appealing as part of a next-generation funding mechanism for roads that replaces gas taxes. But what do you think? Take our scientifically inefficient poll, leave a comment or do both.

[For the Record, 6 p.m. Oct. 29: The original caption to the accompanying photo stated that the pictured device is being marketed by True Mileage in Long Beach to track the miles a motorist drives. The device doesn't track cars, however; it doesn't record GPS data. Nor is the company marketing it to state transportation departments, although some state officials have expressed an interest in it. Instead, the company is developing the device for insurers that need mileage reports to calculate discounts based on annual vehicle miles traveled.] 

ALSO:

Obamacare's next hurdle

Revive immigration reform

Nov. 22, 1963: 50 years, and still no conspiracy

Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey and Google+