American Automobile Fuel Consumption Debate


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John Ward

One problem is that the technology to track movement or location is pervasive. When I get bank statements back, it tells me where and when I used an ATM and a similar record could be reconstructed from credit card transactions. Cellphones can now have built-in GPS to track you in an emergency (I'm not sure if this required on new phones or just suggested). Just for completeness, maybe we should also consider these other technologies, not just vehicular.
Is it legal to collect this data? To some detail it is. I don't think saying you went through some toll gate 5 times in a month is all that different from getting a receipt that says you bought 5 cans of soup at the store. A company needs some way to show why it is charging you money in case you have a dispute.
In connection to Tom's 2nd question, what level of data collection regarding location is appropriate for our society and what protections should there be for it? I think law enforcement, given proper protections such as requiring judicial approval is okay. Selling the data to advertisers is a bit less palatable. Active tracking systems such as On Star or possibly cellphones should require express consent of the car or phone owner, possibly during each use if privacy is a concern, although maybe the owner can define how closely he/she wants to be tracked. A time limit for data retention seems reasonable, perhaps in the 3-6 month range in case a criminal case develops that requires it.


Here is a personal story regarding this. When Jenny took me to the airport before Christmas, she was leaving the terminal, going back through the tunnel, and stopped to pay the toll. There was no one at her booth. She sat their for a minute, glancing around for a while, but then decide just to go on. It was early morning, probably 6:30am.

When we both got back from Christmas, waiting in the mail was a warning citation for failing to pay the tool. On the citation was a photograph of our car's license plate and the exact date and time of the violation.

I realize that Jenny did, in fact, violate the law. We are going to appeal the violation, since there was no way to pay the toll, but the way in which is was enforced was a little scary. The potential for abuse is huge. How I can a disprove a picture and a computer print date and time printout?

I haven't thought these issues all the way through thus do not yet have a policy suggestion, but the potential for privacy violations brought about by these technologies is for me truly scary.


The key question here is "what level of data collection regarding location is appropriate for our society and what protections should there be for it?"

The benefits: While OnStar and others have focused mostly on the security and repair service aspects of tracking data (eg. your car breaks down or you lock yourself out), there are also large benefits to consumers in the form of travel time savings that are currently left on the table because of the difficulty of gathering route choice data. With more route-choice data we would be able to provide better pre-trip and en-route route guidance to drivers and alleviate some of the economic cost of congestion through travel time savings and/or better distributed trip plans. But one of the largest challenges to traffic predictions is the difficulty in gathering data conventionally. With better data, systems that we are using here at the Intelligent Transportation Systems Program( could achieve better accuracy in predicting traffic patterns for prescriptive guidance.

The costs: Privacy is a big concern here, but why? Data for medical studies are subject to 'anonymization' - they are passed through 1-way functions so you cannot recover the initial patient identifiers. And unlike credit cards, route-choice data does not need to be kept around for accounting purposes, so it is also a good candidate for anonymization. I think this is largely a public perception issue that will eventually come around. (Some valid privacy concerns do exist for sparsely populated areas/infrequently traveled routes though. Consider a private ranch, say Michael Jackson's Neverland, with only private residential traffic on a 1-mile access road. Even if traffic data on this road was anonymized, we would still know a great deal about what was going on at Neverland...)

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