Seventeen years after Singapore installed its electronic road pricing system, twelve years after the London Congestion Charge was implemented, ten years after Germany began tolling trucks on its highways, eight years after Stockholm installed its congestion charging system, and even after several other countries and cities have installed successful, effective, wide-area congestion pricing systems for cars or trucks or both, America still has none.

There have been a few U.S. studies and technology trials, to be sure. Brave, “things-look-different-here” Oregon, a celebrated leader in road pricing, has a significant trial underway, but the decision by the 2015 Washington State Legislature to delete proposed funding for a trial of road pricing, advocated and studied for a decade in the Pacific Northwest, is an example of the more typical American (and Canadian) response to supplementing and eventually replacing fuel taxes with road use charges. Nothing significant has shifted U.S. public opinion about road-user finance reform since Mayor Bloomberg’s New York congestion charge was voted down by New York State in 2008, or—come to think of it—since 1913 when Oregon instituted the first state fuel tax.

Perhaps if Oregon’s newest effort is successful, the other 49 states and the U.S. Government will follow, as happened a century ago. But things are so different now we doubt it. One of us first wrote about that, here.

Fortunately, robotic, connected vehicles provide a new way to address the stubborn problem of shifting away from fuel taxes to road-use pricing as an alternative, user-pay mechanism. Here’s why:

At present, an ideal system of variable, mileage-based usage fees (MBUF) determined by time, place, and vehicle-type has two significant barriers: high system cost and low social acceptance. Costs can be engineered and marketed away, but social acceptance has so far proven to be an insurmountable barrier.

Low social acceptance is predicated on perceptions of privacy, “more taxes”, user equity, and fairness. The perceptions surrounding each of these are strong and negative, much more so in North America than in the EU. There are many policies and technologies that can address these objections but they require patience to explain and diligence to understand. Significantly, the arguments in defense of road pricing are themselves frequently untrusted or not believed.

Hence, our inability — in North America at least — to significantly educate journalists and satisfy drivers in the face of government distrust, personal entitlement, privacy fears, and insufficient public transit alternatives. In addition, electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers and owners have a fairness argument ready if fossil-free vehicles are targeted to make up for the low fuel tax revenues they generate. Altogether, a bundle of objections make adoption of MBUF highly unlikely in the mostly fossil-fueled near-term, even when mixed with a small, rising proportion of EVs.

Judging by the lack of progress being made toward a shift from fuel tax to MBUF, and the fact that the context of the solution slowly wanders and evolves, we believe that this change, should it ever occur, is two to four decades away—i.e., concurrent with or longer than the deployment timeframe of the autonomous vehicle (AV).

As the deployment timelines for MBUF and the AV will follow parallel trajectories, the AV will serve to diminish the urgency of demand-varied MBUF, as it is currently proposed. As the AV is licensed and taxed for road use, transportation funding planners should look forward to this newer, larger picture instead of dwelling on the faint hope of near-term MBUF. The oft-touted Stockholm and London road-pricing methods are not only being snubbed by many, especially in America, but their technical deployment is becoming outdated. What’s innovative and praised now will necessarily become critically unappealing as their cumbersome infrastructure ages. These systems will likely be dismantled as we approach the 2030s, as these cities will deploy new technologies to manage their pricing policies.

Metering the AV for road-use fees is an approach that needs exploration now. Google could help California trial this immediately with its Mountain View automated electric vehicle deployment. Such a bold move would boost acceptability by government road authorities and the many critics of personal motorized mobility in the environmental activist community. In fact, if the AV can help address infrastructure and funding sustainability, that alone is reason for government to start preparing AV policy and infrastructure—two of the critical components of sustainable automobility in the 2040s.

As described in our forthcoming book, the driverless AV will have to be connected to a monitoring authority. When an AV is in use (whether owned or shared) time and location will be known to a fully automated central control point. These vehicles can be charged a road use fee, set by a computerized algorithm based on market demand and policy incentives like off-peak discounts to shape demand. Customer privacy can be fully protected in this context if appropriate design guidelines are followed.

Hence, such an AV-MBUF fee could be bundled into the robo-taxi fee. If 90 percent of the eventual AV fleet is publicly regulated and commercially operated (our recommended deployment target), users will focus their entitlement demands on rapid, safe, reliable, always-available, low-cost transportation services and less on right-to-free-roads and privacy protection that currently dominate the push-back related to today’s MBUF proposals.

Bern Grush and John Niles, July 2015