Massachusetts plans to tax self-driving ‘zombie cars’ might not jive with industry

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Boston ain’t having any of your zombie apocalypse, at least not of the vehicular variety. The state of Massachusetts is considering taxing driverless cars used by ridesharing services that wander the streets in limbo without any passengers.

Twin bills were presented in the state House and state senate by Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier (D) and Senator Jason Lewis (D), respectively, at the end of January. It sets the bar rather low in terms of revenue — $.025 per mile — with the intent to discourage road space being hogged by robotic hatchbacks.

“The rate would be mostly based on miles, but would make it go up or down depending on where you’re driving, the time of day, and the number of passengers,” Farley-Bouvier told Metro, suggesting some flexibility in how the tax would work.

There were other critical features the laws would demand of autonomous vehicles, including a failure-alert system, regular and constant software updates, be zero-emission vehicles, be marketed as autonomous cars, and have a panic button.

Lewis explained it went beyond the likes of Uber and Lyft.

A self-driving Uber on the streets of San Francisco December 2, 2016 (Geektime/Yaniv Feldman)

“We could have situations where people with autonomous vehicles go somewhere and because there is either very little parking or because they don’t want to pay for parking, they could just have their cars just driving around and clogging up the roads,” Lewis said, who added a per-mile rate might be fairer than per-gallon, treating different sized cars more equitably.

The idea of taxing autonomous vehicles or robots in general was recently suggested by none other than Bill Gates, but in his case he was concerned both about lost revenue for governments if workers become unemployable. Others also have in mind using the funds raised by new taxes to retrain workers made unemployable. The European Union recently turned down a resolution supporting such a tax.

MIT-founded startup nuTonomy started testing in January its version of a self-driving Renault ZOE on the streets of Boston and Singapore.

Google's self-driving car.
Google’s self-driving car (Photo Credit: CC BY 2.0 Steve Jurvetson via Flickr)

“Boston and Massachusetts are leaders in rethinking the future of transportation, and we are grateful for their partnership and support of nuTonomy’s efforts to develop a fleet of self-driving cars to serve the public,” nuTonomy CEO and Co-Founder Karl Iagnemma said in November when the tests were announced. “These tests in the City of Boston will enable our engineers to adapt our autonomous vehicle software to the weather and traffic challenges of this unique driving environment.

With the sudden rush to get test vehicles on the streets, municipalities and states have hurried to keep up.

The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets — an industrial alliance that includes the likes of Ford, Waymo (Google), Lyft, Uber, and Volvo — has advocated for federal regulations for the industry that would override state and local laws. The reason is simple: standardize the industry to avoid mistakes by vehicles crossing state lines. For instance, Massachusetts’s idea that vehicles be exclusively electric or based on hydrogen cells might not jive in more conservative states.

A major example is the coalition’s recent opposition to the SAVE Act, a bill only introduced in five states (including Michigan) that would restrict self-driving car deployments to automakers, precluding players like Google or Uber from deploying them independently.

“We do not support state bills currently under consideration in many states, including Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois and Maryland, which would favor one company, create an uneven playing field and deter life-saving innovations from reaching citizens in these states, by precluding or severely limiting technology companies from testing or deploying fully autonomous vehicles,” the coalition said this past February in a statement.

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