DALLAS – A federal vehicle-miles-traveled road tax of 1 cent per mile could help fund the infrastructure improvements required for the safe operation of driverless cars, according to a leading transportation think tank.

Self-driving cars will be deployed on interstates in northern Virginia later this year to test whether the technology can reduce accidents and  congestion on heavily traveled highways.
Self-driving cars will be deployed on interstates in northern Virginia later this year to test whether the technology can reduce accidents and congestion on heavily traveled highways.
Virginia Tech Transportation Institute

The proposed charge on the use of autonomous vehicles would be roughly equivalent to the current federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, said Paul Lewis, vice president for policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation and chief author of the recently released report.

Self-driving cars need well-maintained roads, clearly defined and regular lane markings, and better traffic-light timing so that their on-board sensors can provide an accurate depiction of the highway surface, the report noted.

“The infrastructure costs associated with the operation of autonomous vehicles presents a substantial funding need,” said Lewis and co-authors Gregory Rogers and Stanford Turner. “Between the maintenance of public roadways and the potential loss of revenue -- fuel taxes, parking, and traffic tickets -- states and cities will have significant financial burdens to address.”

Atlanta is currently creating a smart-traffic corridor by repaving the road connecting its downtown to the nearby Georgia Tech campus and equipping it with traffic-sensing sensors and cameras. Officials estimate that making the city’s entire street grid capable of handling self-driving vehicles would require installing 50,000 environmental sensors, 20,000 pedestrian and mobility sensors, and 10,000 traffic cameras.

Autonomous vehicles will likely be deployed initially in managed fleets rather than individually owned, which would simplify collection of the per-mile road tax, Lewis said.

"The politics is much easier than a traditional VMT," Lewis said. "If you were to put a VMT fee on automobiles today, it would require 150 million different accounts with all the cars that are on the road, not counting buses and trucks."

The fee would generate about $319 million per year if 1% of all driving is autonomous, the report said. The per-mile tax could be varied, with commercial trucks paying a higher rate than cars.

Revenue from the VMT tax should be used to fund a new federal grant program for transportation infrastructure “targeted to investments that improve the safety and reliability of autonomous vehicles, including state-of-good repair programs and connected infrastructure deployment,” the report recommends.

Virginia will deploy wireless-connected and driverless vehicles in the high occupancy tolled express lanes of I-95 and I-495 later this year in a test program approved July 19 by the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The test program will look at how well autonomous cars can communicate with each other in the same lane to determine if the technology can reduce congestion on heavily trafficked highways, said Cathy McGhee, research director for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

"We have variable speed limits that are posted on signs over the road way, that alert the drivers to advisory speeds, when we want them to slowdown to avoid a backup," she said. "That information would be sent directly to a vehicle and the vehicle will actually adjust its speed automatically."

The tests, during which human drivers will be behind the wheel at all times, will begin on closed portions of the roads but may be expanded to open portions during low-traffic periods, McGhee said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s panel on digital commerce adopted a measure on July 19 that would allow U.S. automakers to deploy up to 100,000 self-driving vehicles per year without requiring that they meet current federal auto safety requirements that assume a driver is in control. The quota is now 2,500 vehicles per year.

Automakers would have to show that the self-driving cars "function as intended and contain fail-safe features" to obtain the exemption.

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