Self-driving cars should help pay to pave the way for the future
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We all know self-driving cars are poised to redefine how people and goods move. Less well-known is how these autonomous vehicles will also upend traditional funding streams for transportation investments.

With all the talk in Washington of a trillion dollar infrastructure package, these transformations demand special consideration.

Up-to-date and well-maintained infrastructure is not only important for all road users, but also essential for successful deployment self-driving cars. A predictable driving environment with well-marked traffic lanes, clear signage and modern traffic signals is needed for the current technology to operate safely. Further, experts predict that autonomous vehicles will perform better if they can communicate with other cars and roadside infrastructure using connected vehicle technology, which can help to avoid collisions and mitigate congestion.

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But maintaining, repairing and upgrading existing infrastructure is not cheap. Plus, if companies design autonomous cars to obey traffic laws, they will reduce the millions of dollars that cities and states collect in traffic fines. Smartphone apps in cities such as Washington, D.C., have already reduced revenue from parking violations by a little over $6 million. If self-driving cars are part of shared fleets, then governments could lose even more parking and registration revenues. 

 

Perhaps most importantly, electric autonomous vehicles would not pay the gas taxes that often compose a majority of state transportation budgets. Moreover, preliminary research suggests that even non-electric self-driving cars can reduce congestion and reduce fuel consumption by up to 40 percent in stop-and-go traffic.

So what is to be done? While the future of autonomous driving could be detrimental to existing transportation revenue sources, the technology itself provides a unique opportunity for a fair and straightforward fee assessed per mile traveled.

A fee would not be charged to individual vehicles across the country. Instead, the companies deploying the cars would know when, where and what distance their cars and trucks travel — in turn, they would be able to pay the governments directly for the use of the roadways. Because car companies will likely charge users on a per-mile or per-trip basis, this fee could easily be incorporated into the charge for consumers.  

At the national level, Congress could establish a base fee and the Department of Transportation could oversee its implementation. This fee would apply only to vehicles where the automated system performs the entire driving task, and only for portions of the trip that were completed under automated operation. The base level charge could be very small: $0.01 per mile, which is similar to the federal gasoline taxes consumers are paying today. States and localities would have the flexibility to augment the fee to take into account the differences in vehicle types, vehicle occupancy and other variables to help manage their roadways. While the revenue stream would not be particularly strong initially, it would still net around $318.6 million every year if only 1 percent of all driving is automated.

This money could then be directed towards transportation investments to maintain, repair and upgrade existing infrastructure (what used to be known as a fix-it-first approach). This not only improves the safety and reliability of self-driving cars, but also benefits all road users.

It is important that the government does not set the fee too high, as this could dissuade implementation or distort the market. However, establishing a fee now will help to ensure that the technology helps pay for the supporting infrastructure moving forward.

The initial work for a national per-mile fee has already started at the state level. Oregon started a pilot project to test the replacement of its state gas tax with a miles-traveled fee. In 2016, Tennessee passed a law that would specifically charge a per mile fee for autonomous vehicles. Massachusetts has also proposed a $0.025 fee for self-driving cars operating in the state. The federal law governing surface transportation, the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, specifically set aside $95 million to research this topic further.

Automated vehicles are developing at breakneck speed, presenting a tremendous opportunity to make our roads safer, more efficient and less harmful to the environment. But in order for this technology to reach its full potential, state and local governments must invest in infrastructure. A per-mile fee is an important first step in helping states and localities generate the revenue to do just that. 

Mary Peters is the former Secretary of Transportation under George W. Bush and also served as the Federal Highway Administrator. She currently owns her own consulting firm and sits on the board of directors for the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.