There has been a lot of kerfluffle in the local papers about the possibility of making I-80 a toll road, which I have followed with only very modest interest as I rarely if ever drive on I-80, but a recent description of how the state proposes to use cash-free tolling to mollify local drivers caught my eye. The proposal is that if you are a local driver and you sign up for EZ-Pass, you will not be charged tolls for local trips – hopefully this will reduce the risk that local drivers will avoid I-80 and funnel extra traffic onto local roads.
Now if you know me, you may guess that I’m about to rant about the inequity in requiring one sign up for EZ-Pass in order to gain those benefits, but I kept reading the article and came across something that bothered me much more:
He [the I-80 project manager] said all new and existing toll facilities in the nation are switching to state-of-the-art electronic tolling. By 2020, he predicted, most if not all new cars will come equipped with low-watt radio transponders similar to those provided by E-ZPass and typically mounted on a windshield. Conventional toll collection systems — as well as toll collectors — would be phased out.
This is not a positive prediction, to my view. This is a prediction that we are going to be permit having technology built into our cars that allows our location and movements to be tracked easily. The potential for databases springing up that can identify where we are at any time, cobbled together from various government and private logs of car entrances and exits from various spaces seems probable if this technology does become standard. With the concerns there are now about the abilities of the government to access our phone records and possibly our internet search records, I cannot believe there would not be attempts to access this information as well.
But even if you do not want to get into that concern, I look at the potential benefit to average people of having this technology, versus the possible (and I would suggest likely) uses it would be put to if it were pervasive. On the positive side, it could operate as an EZ-Pass style payment system, avoiding the need to carry cash for tolls, and probably for parking lots/garages soon after. If your car were stolen, you may increase the odds that it will be recovered. Essentially, you gain the advantages touted by OnStar.
But suppose that we can assume every car has this technology. Any vehicle-oriented payment system could be automated to bill the driver – toll booths and parking garages as I mentioned, but metered parking spaces as well. So, you won’t have to carry quarters for the meter, but you won’t be hopping on to the end of someone’s time or just leaving your car for a minute and taking your chances either. And the technology is simple enough it could be used to start ticketing regularly for parking offenses that usually one only gets dinged for sporadically – hydrants could detect if you are parked too near to them, 30 minute zones could detect if you are there too long, and so on. Most of the city here has street cleaning days where you may not park on one side of the street – only occasionally are the street cleaners followed by police handing out tickets, but it would be simple to embed technology to allow the street cleaners to send out tickets on their own. And with the simplicity of tracking cars, it would all of a sudden become plausible to add tolls and fees in places where they have not previously been collected due to the overhead of doing so. Many cities charge tolls on their major bridges – I cannot imagine how one would fit a toll booth system for the Fort Pitt tunnel, but some sensors at the entrance to the tunnel would make it feasible all of a sudden for Pittsburgh to add this source of revenue (which, granted, might then support needed bridge repairs in the area…)
Who knows – maybe there is enough resistance out there that EZ-Pass/OnStar technologies will remain something that one needs to opt into. I definitely can see their advantage for people who want them, and who choose to use them knowledgeably. But I hope to see it remain a choice, not a required feature of our cars.