Massachusetts Gov. wants to track cars on state roads with GPS units in each car

SamSam says: "Gov. Deval Patrick wants to charge drivers by how much they drive on state roads, and at what times. How is he planning on doing this? By adding GPS units to cars, giving at least some state employees the ability to track cars where ever they go."
"It's outrageous, it's kind of Orwellian, Big Brotherish," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham, who drafted legislation last week to prohibit the practice. "You'd need a whole new department of cronies just to keep track of it."
Massachusetts Gov. wants to track cars on state roads with GPS units in each car


  1. What about out of state drivers, just passing through? I suppose they’re going to make everyone pay for these devices too.

  2. Hi, MA resident here. Gov Patrick just threw A LOT of revenue generating ideas up on the wall to see what sticks.

    This is just an idea, floated out there among other harebrained ideas (and a few good ones) but this is not pending legislation.

  3. I’d like to be the first to commend Massachusetts’ wise, forward thinking governor for taxing priuses and hummers equally to pay for the equal wear they cause on roads and bridges. Tracking potential sex offenders[1] everywhere they go is just a fringe benefit…

    Also- what exactly made the trial in Oregon a “success”? What exactly would have constituted a failure?

    [1] citizens

  4. I like the general idea, and it can be done without needing to disclose actual GPS data. Just let the GPS output distance in state and distance out of state. No coordinates. I think that is reasonable and fair.

    If the government wants to know what highways get busy and when, they can use eye-balls to gather that info, cheaper than fighting all these privacy issues.

    On the flip side, the rich data you could mine from such a large number of… you could see very detailed traffic patterns, could help in designing better roads.

    I think a mix of the two data sets, with the choice being yours as to which one the government gets.

    Myself, I’ll keep a non-GPS’d Hummer for my daily driving, and use my GPS’d Echo to shuttle the gas between the station down the street and my Hummer’s tank.

  5. Is abolishing the state’s gas tax part of his plan? The “pay as you drive” tax is already in effect, as a gasoline tax. If they’re having trouble funding the roads, then either they aren’t charging enough in the “pay as you drive” system they already have, or the state is having trouble kicking in their part of the bargain.

    While I’m all for tech, it strikes me that the current “pay as you drive” system is both cheaper, and less likely to generate privacy lawsuits.

  6. Everybody complains about taxes, but nobody wants to live without the services paid for by those taxes. Stop collecting taxes on the people. Then stop maintaining the roads. When they complain about the roads turning into obstacle courses of potholes, tell the to STFU.

    This is an attempt to make the people who use the roads be the ones to pay for maintaining them. The people who use them more, pay more. The people who use them less, pay less. How is this not fair?

  7. Gas taxes are inefficient proxies for ‘pay as you drive.’ Cars, even those of similar weight, get dramatically different mileage.

    Also, using gas taxes doesn’t let you implement congestion charges. We do have different impacts on traffic depending on when we drive.

  8. The big brother aspects of this are scary.

    But putting aside that:
    Doing some quick math, they’d make *less* money off me with this scheme than with the current gas tax.
    MA gas taxes are 23.5 cents/gallon. If I drove 200 miles I’d burn about 6 gallons of gas in my xB(I’m averaging a bit over 33mpg this winter), that works out to $1.41 in gas taxes collected.
    With this GPS scheme I’d be paying a quarter of a cent per mile, or $.0025/mile. For the same 200 mile trip they’d make $.50 off me.
    I’d have to be getting over 93mpg for this scheme to come out ahead, and that doesn’t count in the cost of the GPS units, installation, maintaining them, the infrastructure to upload the data from them, etc.

    So invasive, orwellian, more costly and with less revenue. Brilliant!

  9. Thank you for Sen. Scott Brown, offering a bit of logic against this idea. It’s good to see such rationality coming out of…the republican party?! Well, well, well…

  10. #5 – You are correct, sir. If you want to tax drivers based on their impact, raise gas taxes. While you’re at it, increase registration fees based on cubic inches of displacement and curb weight. This “every road a toll road” business is silly.

  11. This is good, I mean the forthright discussion of it. This type of data assembly is becoming easier, and the department of transport ought to use it to improve design, light timing, roadwork scheduling, etc. – to generally improve the roads. That privacy issues must be addressed goes without saying. (You guys ought to amend your Constitution to overtly provide such a “privacy” right, but that’s your business. And OT, a bit. Nevertheless the Courts will provide one, for it’s necessary for liberty.)
    That those who use the roads the most, and cause the most wear & tear, ought therefore to pay more is nearly axiomatic.
    But, we all benefit, regardless of whether or no we directly use the system.

  12. How is this not fair?

    it IS fair, but it’s probably not constitutional. Since there are other fair alternatives that ARE definitely legal, I’ll promote those.

  13. According to the “Car Talk” guys, GPS tracking units have been installed in new cars for years already, although they are not legally available to monitor except in “emergencies”.Anyone know more on this?

  14. #7, 10, 12: An increase in the gas tax is already being discussed. They are considering more than doubling it:
    Major tolls have already been approved for major thoroughfares in and out of Boston. Other plans include alternatively increasing tolls on the Mass Pike (I-90) and major price increases/service decreases in public transportation (the MBTA).

    Only somewhat related: One tax increase being considered that does make sense to me? Removing the ‘no tax on food’ exemption from soda and candy. Honestly, I don’t know who loses on that one.

  15. #8: My property taxes pay for the local public schools w/o me having any kids in them. Same deal. Seems unfair but there it is.

    Black Helicopter moment. This proposal is really about the coming Carbon Tax for each household’s movements on land, sea and air. I hate pollution, my friends, but not as much as offering our government another source of revenue to, as they will say, “save the planet.”

  16. @pixel

    The MA plan is to do this on top of a gas tax–they’re looking for a way to make up the tax revenue lost to better-mileage cars.

    As far as the original post, it’s a bit misleading.

    By adding GPS units to cars, giving at least some state employees the ability to track cars where ever they go.

    Assuming MA will follow the OR model:

    The device did not transmit a signal — which would allow real-time tracking of a driver’s movements — but instead passively received satellite pings telling the receiver where it was in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates.

    I don’t like the idea, but I’d hope that my not-liking is based on facts and not misrepresentations (SamSam, not Pixel)

  17. Actually, though I submitted this story as a Big Brother problem, I actually think that the volume of data harvested could be a potential goldmine for informed decisions vis a vis traffic load, congestion, where to put public transportation and so on.

    If the privacy issues can be settled, I think it could be very interesting. Unfortunately, the very fact that you have to send a bill to someone means that the privacy issues will be there.

  18. It would make more sense to do it through insurance coverage. Charge insurance by the mile/kilometre, with a per mile surcharge based on vehicle weight.

    Much, much easier to administer, and much less big brother issues – just a once/year look at the odometer (with significant penalties for cheating on odometers).

  19. We already have an excise tax, annual inspections, and a registration tag…. it just seems so much easier to combine the databases and magically come up with miles / car / year modified by annually measured emissions data.

  20. Unfortunately, the very fact that you have to send a bill to someone means that the privacy issues will be there.

    But there is no bill to be sent–using the OR model as an example. All the data resides in the chip in your car. When you fill up, the computer in the pump automatically determines your mileage and taxes you accordingly.

  21. “annually measured emissions data” – I should add. MA already has an extensive auto emissions testing program in place.

  22. @ grimc:

    But so is the receiver keeping a record of the coordinates? And does anyone/anything ever get to read the history of those coordinates? (I would assume the answer is yes to both, or how would they bill anyone?)

    If so, then there is the ability to track cars. Maybe not in real-time, but at least retroactively.

  23. @ grimc:

    I didn’t see your second post when I posted mine.

    All the data resides in the chip in your car. When you fill up, the computer in the pump automatically determines your mileage and taxes you accordingly.

    So now the data resides in the car and the pump, which is very different from just the car.

    And how does the pump know what to charge? It asks a computer. So now the data may reside in the car, the pump and the computer.

    It can’t all be contained. If the information never left the car, it would be completely worthless to anyone.

  24. The difference between presumed and actual applies here. In several make or break the deal aspects. The net revenue gain or loss alone would demand some detailed simulation testing. Perhaps audit the simulation against existing GPS enabled fleet vehicles owned by governmental agencies?IF the concept survives a reasonable&prudent evaluation? The implementation details could be grounds for voter referendum on privacy issues alone. If it gets past that? One comment by InsertFingerHere re: miles in/out of state as the “only” transmitted data seems the least privacy risk. Being a bit of a social liberties realist that compromise looks like a good antidote to data misuse potentials. I envision it as a 3 wire connector going to two mechanical digit counters. one pulse per CLICK.

    The auditing or submitting of that data could be handled identically to states with existing odometer logging rules. As for the “rich data” handling? Batch averages blinded by hash etc from reverse trace to a unique GPS might be of value for statistical uses. And still pose only acceptably small privacy risks for most folks.

    MY personal choice would be a slight jiggling of evidence use rules. It comes from an exclusionary rule ancestry. GPS data can only Exonerate. Meaning? “cast reasonable doubt” to exculpate but never convict. That way it neuters any temptation to prosecutors misusing it. After all- we are “supposed to” have a legal system errant towards guilty escaping as opposed to innocents being convicted,let alone executed.

  25. Oh America.. the more you try to be different than Olde England, the more you end up exactly the same.

    You guys are still using ‘miles’ and ‘gallons’, right?

  26. @samsam

    I’m only going on what the article says about the OR trial, so I’m assuming (and the ASS-U-ME rule definitely applies) that the only data transferred is total taxable mileage:

    When a driver pulled into a predetermined service station, the pump linked electronically with the receiver, downloaded the number of miles driven in Oregon and then charged the driver a fee based on the distance.

    All the pump needs to know and keep are your total taxable miles. The more detailed data on your car’s chip can be tightly restricted, maybe even deleted at regular intervals. The state will know how far you’ve driven, but not where.

    Side note: More and more people are already voluntarily (albeit unknowingly) keeping track of their movements for the government.

    Is this a great or even good way of recovering the tax revenue lost to more fuel efficient cars? I dunno. But as far as Big Brother concerns, there are easy, obvious ways to ensure privacy. The biggest issue here, IMO, is that the main source of funding for road building and maintenance is destined to keep shrinking, so what will we use as the alternative?

    Ugh, you’ve succeeded at making me defend this thing…

  27. Like others pointed out, this would be a boon to developing a better infrastructure.

    As a privacy issue, it’s scary, but manageable. Doesn’t most every new vehicle come with OnStar or comparable service that uses GPS? Maybe there could be a opt-in/out option when you setup up the service a la Google’s anonymous usage statistics? Provided that the Opt-in EULA doesn’t completely suck.

  28. Surprise, Surprise once again a solution to a perceived problem that requires a huge amount of money, people and resources to keep track of, creating a huge amount of spending for very little gain. The perceived problem is not enough revenue generated by gas taxes….the real solution: use those funds more efficiently. Now this wouldn’t solve the problem forever, but doesn’t it always make sense to make better use of your old funds rather than trying to take another chunk out of your poor old taxpayer’s wallets, especially during a recession? I am sick and tired of the government finding more inefficient ways to spend more and more of MY money.

  29. I live in MA, and I’m appalled at this idea, for a lot of reasons. For instance:

    –Massachusetts, along with the Feds, impose fuel efficiency as well as emission standards. It seems ridiculous to then complain we aren’t buying enough gas. That’s the entire point, isn’t it?

    –Wear and tear on the roads isn’t uniform from vehicle to vehicle. Lighter cars cause less road damage, so why does a Smart Car pay the same mileage fee as a full-size Hummer? Bridges, especially, suffer not from a thousand cars driving over them, but from a few hundred fully-stuffed tractor-trailers shaking them apart. And since those trucks are driving from New Jersey to New Hampshire, they won’t be subject to this new fee at all. So much for “those who drive more, pay more.”
    By the same token, those who live in New Hampshire and commute daily to Boston pay nothing.

    –Companies that own a lot of vehicles, like trucking companies, furniture companies, etc. will have a brand-new incentive to move over the border to New Hampshire or Connecticut so their vehicles won’t need to pay the mileage fee.

    –There’s roughly a 0% chance that the information collected by these GPS units won’t end up used by cops and courts to track your movements when it suits their purposes. They already do it with your EZ Pass transponders and your subway passes. Law enforcement simply won’t stand for that information being off-limits to them. History has always — always — shown that the only way to keep such info out of the courts is to not collect it in the first place.

    –What ever happened to starting with the least-invasive options first? How about the GPS only reports the mileage when it syncs up at the gas station? If you think the GPS screwed up, you, the car owner, can go home and see a readout on your dashboard of where it says you’ve driven. If there’s a discrepancy, you can report it. If it looks good to you, you get to erase the info (and therefore forfeit your right to contest the bill in the future). There is absolutely no justification for collecting info about where and when I went somewhere.

    — I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, this is an info grab masquerading as a ham-handed tax scheme. The government should be able to find a way to tax me without 24/7 monitoring of my whereabouts.


  30. Gah.

    You could allay privacy concerns by having the car record ONLY distance driven in state. If the GPS unit determines the car is out of state, it does not add to the total. No trail of crumbs, just a scalar number equals no tracking (too bad Big Brother). Scale it by the weight of the car and its attendant damage to the road and you get the bonus of lighter more efficient cars being more desirable from a tax standpoint. I can not, however, see such a proposal being desirable to politicians if they couldn’t get their delicious spying in there somehow. In -my- world, the design of the gadget would be open and anybody would be able to see all the data it contained at any time so no snoopy agency could hide anything in there but yeah, how likely is that to happen either? At any rate, it’s a lot of extra work and gadgetry to do what a gas tax already does, so why bother?

  31. What the – a Democratic Gov. wants to track citizens, and a Republican State Senator wants it abolished. This is change I can believe in!

    The real issue is that people are driving less, and those that are driving are using more efficient cars/trucks/whatever. Since it would be political suicide to increase the taxeson a gallon of gas (it’s pretty high in MA already), why not charge a quarter cent per mile traveled. At 12,000 miles a year, that’s about $30/year per car – who’d object? Except, wait a minute, how would you collect that information – I know, we’ll need a whole new set of cronies to oversee this (as someone else mentioned already)…

    Sounds expensive.

    I doubt the $30/car per year would cover the cost of managing the system and getting the GPS tracking devices installed. I forsee the driver being required to purchase the GPS tracker, and then paying a fee for the required data uploads ON TOP of the underlying taxes.

    Exactly what was the problem they hoped to solve again? Oh yeah, raise tax revenue. This cannot help but de-stimulate the MA economy if this proposal goes forward (thanks MDH #3 for putting this in context)…

  32. Re InsertFingerHere, There are already schemes to aggregate data from cell phones as the ping cell towers, to generate real time data of traffic patterns. The next GPS system I get should know the average speed the cars are going on all the local roads and route me accordingly.

    It could get interesting, though, being pawns of Garmin’s routing algorithm versus TomTom or when someone figures out how to hack or spoof the system.

  33. While I applaud Sen. Brown’s objection to this ill devised ass-hattery, his statement of needing “a whole new department of cronies just to keep track of it” proves his comprehension of technology is about on par with his clueless opponent.

  34. Great! Now I can get all those damned Prius owners to help support my 71 Olds 98, love that 455ci mill.

  35. I think it’s a good idea – except the ubiquitous GPS system.

    There are a few Pay As You Drive insurance companies in Australia that will let you use GPS or just mileage to determine your premium, etc.

    This system should be able to work with just distance travelled, and perhaps a means of finding what area you were in (although that is more for insurance, not so much taxing, if you’re within the state). Just not pinpointing it.

    It’s a shame that any positives will be overlooked because the people responsible for putting these proposals forward are always going to be too gung-ho about the technology… at least for a while, until a thorough generational change has occured in parliament / congress / the senate etc

  36. Something similar was explored years ago in Minnesota. The plan was to use “passive” gps to track where a vehicle was driven and when. If it was used during high volume times, on high volume roads, a fee is incurred.

    The fees would be collected when you filled up at the gas station. The pumps would have a way to ping the vehicle’s records and tally up fees owed, and tack it onto gas cost.

    The proposal died a quick death once it reached the public. Aside from the Orwellian implications, the cost for implementing such a plan would far outstrip the monies generated by it.

  37. The quarter-cent per mile isn’t the revenue they’re after. It’s the fact that they can ticket you *every* time you exceed the posted speed limit, run a STOP sign or a red light, or make an unlawful left turn. Even when there’s no police officer. And who can object to that? Law abiding drivers have nothing to fear!

    Also, there’s a tidy revenue opportunity if you don’t put a display on the GPS. Sell the GPS data back to the driver for a small monthly fee (plus mandatory universal service fee, mandatory FCC surcharge, mandatory cost-of-doing-business fee, “because we just felt like it” fee). Once there’s sufficient uptake, make the service mandatory, then when people forget what you’re taxing them for, take out the screens on new cars and charge them again.

    But really, I can’t see why people are getting worked up over this. You’re on the public highway. Why do you think there’s a privacy interest in the Commonwealth knowing where you are? It’s not as if you’re hiding somewhere. And what do you have to hide, anyway? What are you doing with that car, running kiddie porn or planning to pack it with explosives and drive it into a building? Child-exploiting terrorist scum like you people who complain about the laws shouldn’t be allowed to drive anyway.

    (I leave it as an exercise for the reader how much irony there was in this post. For the government snoops whose sensors I just tripped, there was none at all. You’re doing a great job protecting us. Nothing to see here. Move along.)

  38. Well, I like the part about “everybody pays a fair amount based on actual usage”, but I don’t like the part about “estranged husband at the DMV stalking ex-wife on line during office hours.”

  39. from the article: The idea behind the program is simple: As cars become more fuel efficient or powered by electricity, gas tax revenues decline. Yet the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges is increasing. A state could cover that gap by charging drivers precisely for the mileage their vehicles put on public roads.

    yeah, cause you know, I was driving my all electric car to work the other day, looking at people paying taxes at the pump, and I stuck my head out screaming, “SUCKERS!”

    So, it’s a plan to correct a problem that isn’t even real. Nice going guys.

    Maybe we should create a surcharge for lunar vacations while we’re at it.

  40. @ Post 22:

    I have argued that point for years. A lot of states have annual inspection requirements. Why not integrate that tax into the inspection scheme. Simple w/o all the reliance on GPS or the invasion of privacy.

    The real question though is…if they start taxing you on your use of the highway, are they going to repeal the heavy fuel tax on gas and diesel?

  41. WORDTIPPING: If they tax motorists for the mile logged on their cars based on odometer readings, the here-to-for underground activity of rolling back odometers (as practiced at used car dealers around the country) would become a major industry…

    IMHO, taxing the fuel that runs the cars is probably the best compromise solution, but the taxes have to be calculated based on increased average milage of cars on the road and the increasing costs of road work, leading to a massive rise in the cost of fuel.

    Do I want more expensive gasoline – NO, but it really is the most reasonable mechanisim available. Another alternative would be for the gov’t to simply be done with it, impose a 100% income tax, then dispense allowences to each citizen according to their needs…

    That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

  42. No amount of taxation will ever pay for the Big Dig. I wish they would just come to terms with that. Ban all driving in Boston and provide more parking at train stops heading into Boston. Keep the (non-taxi, non-truck) cars out and there’s no need for a Big Dig.

  43. I think it can save a lot of money like the Oregon Govenor wants by getting rid of a majority of the police force and just send tickets in the mail to peoples homes. It would estimate how fast you went from point A to point B and send you the speeding ticket based on the calculated time it should have taken without stopping. It will also see if you stopped at signs. It can be used later in lawsuits to see your travel patterns and for use against competition in elections when you can pull up records if they have gone to a strip bar or an undesirable section of town. Also would be good for those stalkers that want to know where their prey is and ex-spouses finding out where their spouse has moved to so they can kill them. Once its in the record you can’t deny access. ACLU will see to that.

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