Monday, August 15, 2011
In Auto Test in Europe, Meter Ticks Off Miles, and Fee to Driver
EINDHOVEN, the Netherlands — As Sander Van Dedem recalled watching the charges tick up every 10 seconds on the dashboard meter on the way to the airport, he resolved to try public transportation next time. “Looking at the money makes you realize that a car isn’t always a good idea,” said Mr. Van Dedem, a commercial sales manager for I.B.M. here.
But his pricey ride was not in a taxi. He was driving his own Volvo XC60.
The car had been outfitted with the meter so that Mr. Van Dedem could take part in a trial of a controversial government tax proposal to charge drivers a fee for the miles they drive. The meter also factors in the cost to society in the form of pollution, traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on roads.
Hooked up to the Internet wirelessly and to GPS, the system tabulates a charge for each car trip by using a mileage-based formula that also takes account of a car’s fuel efficiency, the time of day and the route. (Driving on busier thoroughfares costs more than driving on less-traveled roads.) At the end of each month, the vehicle’s owner would receive a bill detailing times and costs of usage, not unlike a cellphone bill, although participants in the trial did not have to pay the charges.
Governments in car-clogged regions of Europe, Asia and even the United States have shown an eagerness to explore such systems, but they face a nagging challenge in placing them in private vehicles. Even in environmentally conscious places like the Netherlands, voters and politicians often vehemently oppose the programs, citing privacy concerns about the monitoring of drivers’ whereabouts and the introduction of what amounts to a new type of tax.
In the Netherlands, where by some accounts residents have the highest average commuting time in Europe and a reputation for receptivity to environmental innovation, the government had planned to institute a nationwide system next year. But the plan was shelved when a new government came to power in 2010.
“The winning party said, ‘If you elect us, there won’t be new taxes,’ and killed the plan,” said Ab Oosting, a city official in Eindhoven.
Supporters of the meters contend that the charges are more equitable than current taxes like automobile purchase and registration fees, because they derive from actual use rather than mere ownership. If imposed, they could supplant gas and vehicle taxes as well as tolls. Governments could program computers to require consistent gas guzzlers to pay higher rates, for example.
Distance charging also provides a means of replacing declining revenues from gasoline taxes as more people drive highly efficient, hybrid or electric cars, helping governments that have traditionally depended on gas taxes for road upkeep.
Equally important, studies have found that the meters provide instantaneous negative feedback, the kind that psychologists say changes behavior.
“At the beginning you’re looking at it all the time and thinking of costs, and pretty quickly it starts to influence what you do,” said Mr. Van Dedem, whose rush-hour airport ride would have incurred a charge of just over $5 under the rates proposed in the Netherlands.
The effect has been lasting: even though the trial was two years ago and the meter has been removed, he now works from home more in the mornings and walks to the market, he said.
In Europe, countries like Germany and Denmark “were looking to the Netherlands to test the technology” and were disappointed when the plan was shelved, said Peder Jensen, a transportation expert at the European Environment Agency. Germany has already started using a GPS-based charging system for trucks, and France is planning to do so, a step that is less politically volatile than charging drivers of private cars.
In the United States, states including Oregon, Texas and Minnesota have explored mileage charging systems, but the first tentative proposals have faced obstacles there as well. A longstanding proposal in Oregon to introduce such charging for electric cars stalled in committee this spring and never made it to a vote. It suggested a transitional rate of 0.85 cents per mile in 2015 and 1.85 cents per mile by 2018.
Although the program was primarily an attempt to recoup lost revenue from gasoline taxes, it was also intended to test the waters for distance charging that would eventually apply to all cars.
“We started with a new type of car where the policy argument was clear: electric vehicles don’t pay gas taxes,” said James M. Whitty, manager of Oregon’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding. “But the idea was to get by the anxiety about what the new tax system was about, to see if it would be acceptable.”
The Oregon proposal did not envisage installing real-time GPS-based meters in each car, but merely recording the mileage though the odometer. An earlier trial using a GPS unit had stirred a public outcry even though the unit did not reveal locations as it relayed data to the state. “The public didn’t trust that,” Mr. Whitty said.
Eric-Mark Huitema, a transportation specialist with I.B.M., which developed the system used in the Netherlands in collaboration with the semiconductor company NXP, said that the hardware and software performed well in the testing period.
“The trials work well, but it’s first a psychological issue and second a political choice,” he said. “To do it you need support of the government, and it needs to happen when there is not an election because there’s always a bit of resistance.”
Under the shelved plan in the Netherlands, rates would have varied from 4.5 to 45 cents per mile. Government studies predicted that 60 or 70 percent of drivers would pay less than under the current system of car taxation.
The European Union continues to prod member states to try distance charging despite the setbacks. High car and gas taxes have failed to stem the growth of car use in Western Europe, leaving densely populated countries paralyzed at rush hour.
Belgium plans to start a small trial of 50 drivers in September. “Traffic jams are expected to double by 2020; the roads are full, full, full,” said Freidl Maertens, director of the pilot program in Leuven, Belgium. Singapore is also contemplating a mileage-based tax system, though so far the plans do not include a digital display, which some experts see as a crucial component.
According to data collected in the Eindhoven trial, watching the small charges add up changed driving habits.
“Seeing the meter helps,” Mr. Huitema said. “The old taxes don’t do that — you fill the tank, pay and try not to worry anymore.”