You can’t regulate self-driving cars into existence

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The following blog post was co-authored by R Street Technology Fellow Anne Hobson. 


The editorial board of The New York Times apparently knows precisely the autonomous vehicle future that it wants to see. It just has absolutely no idea how to get there.

The paper’s Oct. 3 editorial hailed self-driving cars’ potential to save thousands of lives annually. One might think the paper would therefore embrace a liberal approach to the technology, one that might encourage its development and hasten an end to all that carnage.

Alas, the Times instead bemoans recent safety guidelines from the U.S. Department of Transportation on the grounds that they are merely voluntary. As the editorial’s authors see it, unless automakers are made to bend to the will of binding regulations, the cause of self-driving vehicles will be set back. In this view of the world, consumers could only feel confident that the new technology is safe if it clearly is under strict control, with forceful government rules to ensure people aren’t used as “crash test dummies.”

It’s no doubt that people could be put off from self-driving cars by news of accidents and other problems experienced during the technology’s testing and deployment stages. But what the Times misses is that binding regulations don’t actually serve as a prophylactic against such eventualities.

The most powerful force in the service of innovation is the market. As with all new industries, there is a huge incentive for companies to get safety right, independent of any regulatory standard or penalty.

What’s more, user confidence is not tied to whether there are binding regulations on the books, but to what happens in the real world. When it comes to self-driving cars, successful tests, word-of-mouth reviews and positive company reputations will be the only things that can ensure user confidence.

If anything, the specter of binding regulations could inhibit exactly the sort of developments needed to ensure the safest technology finds its ways onto the roads. Rules that mandate design principles rather than performance principles can do more harm than good. Rather than advance safety, they limit the spectrum of technologies deemed acceptable for deployment.

The Times‘ editorial board clearly grasps that there are opportunity costs to delaying the arrival of self-driving cars. The paper notes the earlier they become the norm, the more lives will be saved. But they fail to see how the very rules they insist must be binding could work at a cross purpose to that goal.

Innovators, not lawmakers, must decide how complex systems should behave. And when it comes to the best path forward for self-driving cars, consumers will be judge.


Photo by Osugi / Shutterstock.com

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