** New update at the end of this post. **

On Saturday, I took my car in for its mandatory emissions inspection. Seven minutes and $15 later I was on my way. All I’ve got to do now is mail in $76 and my car’s good for another year on the road. My brief visit to the testing facilitiy was hardly enough time to ponder the eternal verities, but I did have a couple of thoughts.

It’s well known that people don’t like paying so much to license their cars. So I devised a way to make licensing your car free. Are you ready for this?

It works as a feebate. Basically, we’d identify the median level of tailpipe pollution (the level at which half of all cars are cleaner and half are dirtier). Easy enough. Then we’d devise a sliding fee schedule: the dirtier your vehice is than the median, the more you pay. But the extra revenue wouldn’t go to the government, it would go to reduce the licensing fees of cleaner-than-average cars.

In this way, the dirtiest cars would pay enough to make it free or very cheap to license the cleanest cars. As the vehicle fleet became cleaner, the median would move, and the fee schedule would continute to provide an incentive for driving clean cars.

Feebates are grand. In different ways, they’re being considered in California, Canada, France, and the UK. But there may be a problem with my scheme.

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  • Vehicle licensing vehicles could end up being inequitable. I haven’t looked into it, but I worry that lower-income people are driving dirtier cars. And I wouldn’t want my licensing feebates to be regressive.

    On the other hand, my worry could be unfounded. The poorest tend to not actually own cars in the first place. And lower income folks tend to choose economical cars that are also cleaner: generally speaking, it’s going to be the Ford Focus, not the F350. So my feebate could actually be progressive. Someone would have to get the data and run the numbers.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s good evidence showing that lower income people are harmed the most by air pollution. For example, the air quality near freeways can be downright poisonous, especially for children—and that’s not usually where the well-heeled make their homes. Reducing vehicle air pollution, and the illnesses that result from it, could be a big win for struggling families.

    Hat tip to Todd Wentworth who inspired this post.


    UPDATE 12/7: In light of the robust conversation in comments, here’s a proposal. To avoid annoying SUV owners who say they only take their SUVs skiing, we could do this: read the odomoter.

    Mileage driven since the last emissions check-up would be used as a weighting factor in determining the license fee. This would make the feebate scheme more complicated, but I don’t think it would make it infeasible.

    What do you think?