Sales Tax Slice: Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Raise Lease vs. Service Issues

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Uber will be introducing its first self-driving cars in Pittsburgh later this month. This first fleet of custom Volvo XC90s will include trained operators available to take control of the vehicle if necessary. These vehicles will not be completely autonomous. However, as the technology in this area progresses, the line between car rentals and transportation services may become less clear. In states that tax car rentals but not transportation services, this ambiguity could cause controversy.  

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has created 5 categories for classifying motor vehicles based on the degree to which their functions are automated. On this scale, Level 0 represents vehicles lacking any autonomy. Uber’s ultimate goal – as well as that of Google, Tesla, Apple and others – is to develop a Level 4, fully-automated vehicle (i.e., one capable of safely navigating from one point to another without human assistance). Uber’s self-driving Volvos achieve Level 3 autonomy, falling short of Level 4 based on their need for trained operators, according to Bloomberg Businessweek

As required by the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, all 23 states that are full Streamlined Sales Tax members exclude from their definitions of leases and rentals the provision of tangible personal property with an operator. Tennessee, the only associate member state, also excludes the provision of tangible personal property with an operator from its definition of “lease or rental”. Many non-member states also treat the provision of tangible personal property with an operator as a service rather than a lease or rental. New York treats the provision of equipment with an operator as a service unless the customer has the right to direct the operator’s use of the equipment.  

But what happens when the operator is removed? While this would certainly remove the transaction from the exception from leases and rentals for property with an operator, does the transaction otherwise bear the indicia of a lease? In the case of Uber’s aspired-to fully-automated car, would the passenger have the requisite possession and control of the vehicle to be said to be leasing it? Might Uber successfully argue that it has constructive control over the vehicles based on the fact that all travel requests are routed through its platform before being sent to a vehicle? In states like Arizona, which do not tax ridesharing or taxi services, would this remove the transaction from taxation? Suppose that Enterprise starts renting fully-automated vehicles, but that instead of travel requests being routed through a smartphone app, the passenger inputs the destination directly into the vehicle. This may be more likely to be treated as a taxable lease, but should the distinction in how the destination information reaches the vehicle make a difference in taxability? 

Like the tug of war that we have seen between states and taxpayers on software-as-a-service transactions, it may be that in the not-too-distant future we will see a similar fight over classifying what might be called “automaton-as-a-service” transactions. And in their efforts to preserve the tax base, it seems inevitable that states will end up also expanding it. Suppose that a cleaning company deployed a fleet of Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robots. Would a state such as Alabama, which does not tax cleaning services, treat this as a taxable lease or rental or as a nontaxable service? What about robot massage therapists

Where should the line between leases and services be drawn for autonomous vehicles and equipment? Continue the discussion on Bloomberg BNA’s State Tax Group on LinkedIn

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