Thursday, April 14, 2016

Rant Re-Run (Driverless Cars)

State Senate President Cullerton of Illinois has introduced a Bill to tax drivers by milage driven.  He says this will help solve a problem--that the gas tax no longer adequately funds road maintenance in the State.  Cullerton blamed Toyota Priuses for the problem, which is just silly.  For one thing, the price of gas currently is half of its all-time high (so the tax take is half what it could be).  For another, I have not noticed Priuses selling like hotcakes over the past decade.  Full-sized pickup trucks, SUV's, and SUV crossovers are selling like hotcakes.

Cullerton's proposal would require more Nanny State (monitoring the location and use of vehicles), or a complex "apply for it" rebate system (to refund gas tax to drivers), or some (possibly less privacy-invading) combination of both.  This alone makes me confident that his idea will be a non-starter with voters.

But Cullerton raises some thought-provoking points.  Until now, point-of-sale fuel taxes have functioned well as user-fees for road construction and maintenance.  The more you drive, the more you pay.  As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, and as more alternative fuel and electric vehicles enter the fleet, fuel taxes become harder to collect, or avoidable.  The "automatic" revenue feature of user-fees dwindles while the need for road maintenance remains constant (or increases).  Something must be done to maintain the road budgets of the States.  And the Feds (also based on fuel taxes).

Of course enthusiast drivers resent the Nanny State.  We like to drive fast and sometimes aggressively.  We like to drive alertly, with situational awareness, and we decry those who don't.  If we're driving a late model car, vehicle dynamics are already monitored by continuous-loop data acquisition.  It's tamper-proof and admissible in court as evidence.  You can argue your own attentiveness and competence all day long in an accident case, but it will be an uphill battle against data that shows speed and g-forces.  I know an aggressive driver who runs his own dash camera continuously.  That way, he can at least introduce his data into evidence.  He's fighting fire with fire.

Insurance companies tout "apps" that allow parents to monitor use of a vehicle by their teenaged children.  Car companies tout "smart" cruise control that maintains distance, and automatic braking that "pays attention when you don't."  It's but one step from the current "lane drift alert" feature in some cars to a system that takes control from the driver.  And we're only a few lines of code, and some road re-striping, away from "intelligent" freeway merging and turn lanes.  How hard would it be to integrate Google Map smart phone technology with this?  You could program your destination into your car, and it would drive itself to your next destination.

For two years, I took the express commuter train from the far southwest suburbs into the Chicago Loop.  Compared to the aggravation of rush hour on the Stevenson Expressway, it was heaven.  The travel time was about equal.  I could read, or chat with a fellow passenger (noting his facial expressions &c.), or just look out the window and "decompress."  Many of my fellow riders used the time "productively" on their laptops.  If this flexibility were introduced into personal vehicles, you could arrive home with your work emails answered and your Facebook interactions updated.  Who wouldn't want that?

People are ping-able on their smart phones.  Some "check in" on Facebook regularly.  The social media culture is, often, an accusatory and shaming culture.  I am morally certain (can't prove it) that one of my own speed busts was caused by an Upright Citizen who used his cell phone to "drop a dime" on me.  Where is the evidence that average drivers, given the option of a Smart Taxi, would resent the Nanny State tracking their every move?

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