Mobility Is Freedom, Not an Invasion of Privacy

Mobility is freedom, or at least an important part of it. Yet earlier this month challenges to expansions of that freedom came from, surprisingly, the Mises Institute of Canada, Reason magazine, and American Enterprise Institute. The issues are new automobile technologies, specifically self-driving cars and improved road pricing, and the challenges came from people who clearly don’t understand the technologies involved.

Self-driving cars, says Roger Toutant writing for the Mises Institute of Canada, will lead to “a national, state-operated, computer network that will be used to achieve an Orwellian level of vehicular control and information sharing. …The implications are ominous. In the future, private spheres will be invaded and all movements will be tracked.”

“Boot up a Google car,” agrees Greg Beato of Reason magazine, “and it’s not so easy to cut the connection with the online mothership.” If you get into a Google driverless car, “you immediately start sending great quantities of revealing information to a company that’s already hoarding every emoticon you’ve ever IMed.”

It is appropriate to question new technologies, but the answer is that’s not the way these cars work. None of the self-driving cars being developed by Volkswagen, Google, or other companies rely at all on central computers. Instead, all the computing power is built into each car.

No state-operated central computer will tell cars where to go. Instead, they will find the best route–perhaps consulting with private congestion-tracking services such as Inrix–or offer users a choice of routes, and go there on their own.

Nor do the cars send “great quantities of information” to Google or anyone else, as they do not rely on cell or other communications networks. Instead, they navigate largely based on on-board optical, infrared, and laser sensors. When you park your car at home, it may connect to your WiFi network to download software upgrades and map updates, but it won’t upload information about where you’ve been, and probably won’t even keep track of that information, without your permission.

Toutant confuses self-driving cars with proposals by some government agencies for the creation of wireless communications systems between vehicles (known as vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) and between vehicles and infrastructure (V2I). These systems would apply to human-driven cars and are being developed completely independently from the self-driving cars. Toutant might correctly question whether V2V or V2I systems could potentially invade people’s privacy, but his attack on self-driving cars is misplaced. Volkswagen, Google, and other companies developing driverless cars had no faith that government would install V2V or V2I systems, so they built everything into their cars, which work perfectly fine without V2V and V2I systems that don’t yet exist.

Self-driving cars will be a huge leap in mobility and freedom, and thus should be supported by free-market groups like the Von Mises Institute and libertarian publications like Reason. While a few cautionary words might be appropriate to insure that people don’t yield any more privacy than they want to, the attacks made in the last few weeks are completely unwarranted.

Fully self-driving cars should be on the market by 2020, and since our auto fleet completely turns over about every 18 years, most cars on the road will be driving themselves by around 2030. But what roads will they drive on and how will we pay for them?

Historically, most road costs have been paid out of gasoline taxes, which–unlike manually collected tolls–can easily be collected without imposing delays on motorists. But gas taxes have several major disadvantages: they don’t send users signals about differences in costs between different roads; they don’t send road providers signals about what roads people are willing to pay for; they don’t automatically adjust for inflation or increasing fuel-economy; and, being collected mainly by federal and state governments, they don’t provide adequate funds for local roads.

As I explain in a 2012 Cato Policy Analysis, all of these problems can be solved by modern electronic systems that would collect fees based on how many miles people drive and what roads they drive on. As Mark Perry warns in an article published by the American Enterprise Institute, there is no doubt that such “mileage-based” or “vehicle-miles traveled” (VMT) systems, could potentially invade people’s privacy.

Unfortunately, Perry’s article is full of paranoid delusions about these systems. “The VMT system smacks of Big Brother,” he says. “It would force us to give up our privacy.” If he had actually reviewed any of the proposals for mileage-based fees, he would have discovered that they are all carefully designed to protect privacy.

Several different systems have been proposed, but typically, the systems keep track of the charges people incur as they drive without recording, in any way, where or when they drove. Since the information is not recorded, there is no way to ever upload the information to a central computer. Such systems have been successfully been tested in Oregon and several other states.

“No matter what method is used to track mileage,” alleges Perry, “the cost of implementing it would consume a large share of the revenue being collected.” Actually, the latest estimates are that the costs will not be significantly more, and may even be less, than the costs of collecting gas taxes.

Perry goes particularly over the top when he warns that “the government could use the VMT system as a mechanism to charge differential rates based on highway congestion levels.” Congestion costs Americans well over $100 billion a year, and economists agree that the only real solution is to charge differential rates based on highway traffic levels. That the VMT system makes this possible is one of its greatest features, not some sort of threat.

Furthermore, unlike gas tax funding, which requires that all roads be government-owned, mileage-based fees open the door to private roads. Thus, free-market advocates such as AEI should endorse these proposals, not spread unfounded rumors about Big Brother. 

It’s appropriate to ask questions about the effects of new technologies on privacy. But is also appropriate to do your homework before spreading hysterical fantasies about how these technologies will work. Contrary to the claims of these writers, both self-driving cars and mileage-based road pricing will greatly improve both our mobility and our freedom without threatening our privacy.