Q&A about the mileage tax simulation we’re participating in

Cheats, hacks and Little Brother in your car: Yes, there are security concerns.

The state is exploring “road usage charges” through a pilot project in which I and 1,999 of my closest friends are taking part.

In plain English, that’s pay-per-mile taxes — an option many states are in the early stages of exploring as a possible replacement for the gas tax.

After reading an earlier column about my participation, JK Veldman, of Everett, wrote in with a bunch of great questions.

First, it’s worth reiterating that, for the most part, no actual money is changing hands in the pilot project. This is a simulation. And for this column, that means some of the answers only have as much meaning as what we’re testing — not a whole lot.

This week, we address Veldman’s questions that relate to security. A hot topic.

“Take a picture of the odometer — how would they know it is my car?”

Taking odometer photos is one of the methods people can choose to report their mileage under the pilot project.

One of the companies involved had a lot to say about this method at a press event in March. They claim their program can verify a car’s make and model and spot Photoshop manipulations.

Even so, Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, took all of about five minutes to prove it’s possible to cheat. He took photos early on of his odometer, printed them out with a color printer, and then trained his camera on those when the program prompted him to report his mileage using odometer photos.

“That was on a home printer. It wasn’t even fancy,” Harmsworth said. “I know it’s a pilot. But the whole point of this was to have something that was somewhat stable. This isn’t a typo. … This is a big hole.”

Pilot project organizers discourage such manipulations. By all means, report flaws. But don’t feel the need to prove them.

“It’s not a hack-a-thon,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington State Transportation Commission.

The pilot project is “a beta system that’s testing what it might be like. It’s not ‘the’ system,” she said.

For one thing, the technology options we’re testing now likely won’t reflect whatever a final pay-per-mile tax system would look like.

Nationally, new approaches are already under development, including a way for a car’s telematics to automatically send odometer readings — no photographs or plug-in devices required.

“We don’t want people to think that because he or someone else is able to do something like this, that means (a road usage charge system) is a no-go,” Griffith said.

One of the main benefits of the study is feedback, she added.

“Is this acceptable? Are they OK with it? … It’s as much about public experience and opinion as testing the technology side of this,” she said.

And to that end, Harmsworth had already decided anyway.

The conservative lawmaker doesn’t support pay-per-mile taxes on principle — much less the costs it would incur to collect them and the work required for drivers to comply under the current simulation.

“What about hackers?”

The answer to this one is a bit anti-climatic.

In a written response to the question, state officials acknowledged the concern. They say it’s too early for details.

“More research and testing is needed to help minimize ways hackers could manipulate or falsify mileage reports, regardless of the technology used. Lawmakers would have to decide how to address security concerns closer to the time of potential implementation, based on the available technology.”

“What if you unplug the device, put it on your other car sitting in the garage, drive the deviceless car for a month, then plug it back in?”

This refers to the reporting method I and more than half of the other pilot project participants have opted to test. This one uses a plug-in device, which connects to a vehicle’s on-board diagnostics port (a standard feature since 1996) and reports the mileage data for you.

DriveSync is the company behind the particular plug-in device I am using. So I turned to their staff for the answer.

Because the device taps into my car’s brain, it can capture all kinds of data, not just my mileage.

“The Plug-In device is capable of detecting the vehicle identification number, as well as when it is disconnected and re-connected,” customer service staff wrote.

Forget Big Brother. This little doohickey does just fine as Little Brother.

The car doesn’t even need to be on. The device logged and reported data when my car was parked and not running for a week.

Other questions

We’ll cover more of Veldman’s questions about the pay-per-mile pilot project in future columns. Have a question of your own to add to the list?

Send it to streetsmarts @heraldnet.com or call 425-339-3432.

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