Will a “Zombie Tax” Keep Self-Driving Cars in Massachusetts in Check?

Two state lawmakers plan a move to keep autonomous vehicles from clogging up the streets.

Mass adoption of self-driving cars could have a disturbing consequence: rolling zombies clogging the streets. That is, a hoard of autonomous cars sent out to cruise until owners call them back. The potential for such a zombie-car invasion is horrifying enough for two Massachusetts state lawmakers to propose a kind of “zombie tax.”

This week, Senator Jason Lewis and Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, both Democrats, introduced a bill that would charge owners of self-driving cars 2.5 cents for every mile driven, while requiring all autonomous cars in the state (weighing less than 8,500 pounds) be zero-emission vehicles. Ostensibly designed to replace lost gasoline-tax revenue, the bill would limit the potential for owners to avoid parking fees by letting their cars wander aimlessly.

According to the bill, the 2.5 cent fee could increase for cars operating without a passenger or traveling in a severe congestion zone, and decrease for cars with several passengers operating in areas with limited public-transportation options, for instance.

But the proposal isn’t sitting well with Massachusetts-based autonomous-car startup nuTonomy Inc. The company’s chief counsel, Matthew Wansley, in a letter to The Boston Globe, wrote the tax in the short-term would cause “an exodus of companies currently developing and testing AVs in the Commonwealth, erasing an opportunity for economic development and diminishing our reputation as a leader in innovation,” and in the long-term punish state residents “for using a safer form of transportation,” as well as slowing the autonomous cars development and making them more expensive than traditional cars.

The state’s first self-driving cars rolled through Boston this week without a statewide law governing self-driving cars in place. Testing is allowed under provisional rules issued by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. The “zombie” bill would be the first attempt by state lawmakers to begin defining a system of regulating autonomous vehicles of Level 3 and above for testing and eventual widespread use.

Nonetheless, the bill is merely the opening shot in a fight that will envelop regulators, innovators and other stakeholders as autonomous cars evolve from a novelty to, as many predict, the predominate form of mass transportation in the coming decades.

As long as they don’t eat our brains.