Driverless cars: Lawmakers shouldn’t stymie innovation

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: September 29, 2014

THANKS to technological advancements, the idea of a fully automated “driverless” car is moving closer to reality. The greatest threat to such progress may no longer be logistical challenges, but the potential for burdensome regulation.

In “Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars,” a working paper issued by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, authors Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann argue that state policies should facilitate “permissionless innovation” as much as possible.

They say that “generally speaking, patience and humility are the wise policy virtues when considering what to do about highly disruptive technologies. Living in fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios and basing policy on them will mean that the best-case scenarios associated with intelligent vehicles will never come about.”

That’s good advice. Too often, in the name of supposed consumer protection, government actually deprives consumers of benefits that would otherwise accrue if market forces held sway. Regulations should be adopted only if they have a concrete goal whose benefit outweighs associated costs (such as a ban on texting while driving, which we support).

The working paper defines “permissionless innovation” as the “notion that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention poses a serious immediate threat to public well-being, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated …”

The authors note business use of the Internet has thrived and benefitted consumers thanks to minimal regulation; they suggest the same would be true if that regulatory approach is applied to driverless cars. In contrast, when government regulations are designed to curtail new innovations “until their developers can prove that they will not cause any harm,” the result is “fewer choices, lower-quality goods and services, diminished economic growth and a decline in the overall standard of living.”

More than 90 people die and more than 6,000 are injured in motor vehicle accidents each day in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Driver error is the main cause of more than 90 percent of crashes.

If 50 percent of vehicles on the road were driverless cars, the Eno Center for Transportation has estimated 9,600 lives would be saved, nearly 2 million fewer crashes would occur and daily freeway congestion would decline by 35 percent. Even if just 10 percent of cars were driverless models, more than 1,000 lives could be saved annually.

Because of that potential, Frank Diana of TCS Global Consulting has predicted widespread use of driverless vehicles would have major ripple effects, including a dramatic reduction in insurance premiums.

While the idea of a driverless car seems far-fetched to many, no one bats an eye at the use of electronic stability control, parking assist technology, lane-departure warnings, pedestrian detection or adaptive cruise control. Yet these are simple forms of driverless technology. As of April, Google’s driverless vehicles have traveled more than 700,000 miles without a crash. Even so, should an accident occur, many worry that liability issues will be hard to sort out without new regulation. But Thierer and Hagemann suggest those issues will be resolved “gradually through a body of common law cases, the same way they have for traditional automobiles and many other technologies.”

Driverless cars could greatly benefit public safety. But for those benefits to occur, government mostly needs to stay out of the way.

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