States Weigh Autonomous-Vehicle Taxes

Fee would supplement gas taxes as fleet becomes more fuel-efficient

WASHINGTON -- As vehicles across the United States become more fuel-efficient, some states are considering whether and how to tax autonomous vehicles to make up for lost gas-tax revenue.

In Massachusetts, proposed legislation would levy a 2.5-cents-per-mile tax on autonomous vehicles, The Detroit News reported. The Tennessee state Senate has approved a bill that would implement a 1-cent-per-mile tax on autonomous cars and a 2.6-cents-per-mile tax on autonomous trucks with more than two axles.

The Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has suggested a 1-cent-per-mile federal tax on autonomous vehicles only when they are operating autonomously—paid for by automakers. Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance for the Eno Center, said the tax could raise up to $300 million per year, which would make up for lost fuel tax revenue from the shift toward electric vehicles and could fund infrastructure repairs.

“Self-driving cars tend to be very fuel-efficient, and a lot of automakers have talked about how they are going to be all-electric,” Lewis told The Detroit News. “That means they are imposing the same type of wear and tear on roadways without paying into the system.”

The autonomous-vehicle tax would have an advantage over a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax—another model that states have tested to make up for declining gas-tax revenues. “It’s tremendously difficult to put a tax on something that is historically free,” Lewis said, alluding to a tax on vehicle miles traveled. “The fee is on automated driving, something that doesn’t exist yet. So there’s not a built-in constituency for it.”

The Eno Center also anticipates that autonomous vehicles would initially be used by "elites" because the technology will be expensive. “So it doesn’t have this kind of tax on middle America,” said Lewis.

However, proponents of autonomous vehicles are not enthusiastic about the idea of taxing the still-emerging technology.

“I would say, in terms of usage fees, as a nation we need a strategy for how we fund our infrastructure repairs,” said John Maddox, president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility, a mobility technology testing site in Ypsilanti, Mich. “For autonomous vehicles, I don’t see them as different than any other vehicle in that regard. There’s no difference between an autonomous battery-electric vehicle and a nonautonomous battery-electric vehicle.”

Lewis said the Eno Center would not want the fee to be so large that it would deter autonomous vehicle testing. He noted that if autonomous trucks were included, the amount raised by the penny-per-mile fee would be roughly equivalent to the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. And that by levying the fee on the automakers, the proposal would avoid the privacy concerns that have stymied VMT taxes.

“How we see it working is if you get in a self-driving car and you get on the freeway and punch in your destination, Ford is now driving your car,” Lewis said. “And they are probably going to charge you for it. … You’re being [driven] by an autonomous vehicle, so of course it knows exactly where you’re going and how fast you’re going. If you didn’t want to have that tracking, you would turn off the self-driving mode.”

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