Tolling Patents Raise Specter of Compromising Privacy

Kapsch TrafficCom AG, one of the global technology leaders in electronic tolling, has filed for a patent that would place cameras inside cars in order to enforce occupancy limits on high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. While the technology is a far cry from commercial viability, the technology raises important questions about privacy. Public policy can’t (nor should it) prevent technology from being developed, but tolling advocates need to ensure that privacy protections are built into toll technology implementation policies.

More specifically, HOT and HOV enforcement does not require invasive technologies like one patented by Kapsch so their use should be strictly circumscribed. As Bob Poole recently explained in his policy study on automated HOT lane enforcement (PS 390, February 2011):

“The first policy change would require all vehicles using the HOT lane to be equipped with transponders, with eligible carpool vehicles’ transponders charged zero toll during peak periods (which could be implemented in the toll-collection software).

“The second policy change would require preregistration of eligible carpools with an employer or ride-sharing agency, similar to current practice with vanpools. This approach would reduce the problem of on-road occupancy enforcement to what is already needed for electronic enforcement of toll collection, with significant savings in equipment and enforcement costs. Enforcement would be shifted off-road, and would consist of periodic audits of employer-sponsored carpools by the local ride-sharing agency (which already audits employersponsored vanpools). It would end eligibility for free or discounted use of the HOT lane by casual carpools and most “fam-pools.”

“These changes represent a return to the original purpose of carpooling programs: to stimulate shared commuting to and from workplaces, thereby reducing the number of vehicles on the roads during peak periods.

“The first example of a HOT lanes project with pre-registered carpools is the I-95 Express Lanes in Miami, which began operation at the end of 2008; a registered-carpool approach has also been proposed for a HOT lanes project under development on I-85 in Atlanta.”

Current HOV and HOT lane policy implicitly invites policy approaches that infringe on privacy. By presuming that all cars are carpools, the enforcement system is designed to identify cheaters. This approach implies that all potential users are also potential cheaters since the incentives are for users to disguise single occupant vehicles as carpools (usually HOV 3).

The approach Bob suggests is shifting the locus of enforcement by re-aligning incentives to cheat. By starting out with a framework where everyone is presumed to be a single-occupant vehicle, and charged accordingly (using transponders), carpoolers carry the burden of registering their cars and verifying they meet occupancy limits to qualify for the free use of the HOT lane. Thus, the need to verifty every vehicle to ensure compliance is dramatically reduced, as is the need for invasive monitoring technology. The task before HOT lane managers is simply verifying the vehicles that are registered as high-occupancy are, in fact, high occupancy.