Self-driving vehicles promise an exciting future, but whether the technology will see widespread adoption in the near term is anything but certain. Among the first hurdles to clear will be overcoming the skeptics and scaremongers who actively deny the technology is ready to be deployed on America’s roads.

A series of fender bends in Silicon Valley, coupled with the first reported self-driving fatalities in Florida and China, have offered the fodder to begin howling for onerous regulation in the name of safety. As the chorus grows louder, it’s time to evaluate what role regulators should take in overseeing self-driving technology.

Despite some well-publicized failures, self-driving vehicles are orders of magnitude safer than traditionally operated vehicles. It’s no coincidence that the federal government plans to pursue a goal of zero road fatalities by 2045. That ambitious goal is a nod to the fact that, even if it isn’t reached, the ability to reduce driving carnage dramatically is within our reach.

For all Americans, safer roads will yield a better quality of life by saving physical pain, tremendous heartache, tens of thousands of lives and millions and millions of dollars.

But the parade of horribles bandied about by those who want to preserve the transportation status quo skews the discussion in ways that hinder our ability to realize safer streets. These self-appointed consumer advocates want to slow progress to preserve their stake in our current system for apportioning liability.

Their self-interested calculus is, unfortunately, already having an effect.
In September, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, charged by the Department of Transportation with regulating self-driving vehicles, released guidelines for manufacturers. Though restrained in some ways, these rules are more restrictive than needed for safety. They call for wholesale re-evaluation of automotive regulation system that has been in place since the 1960s and would farm out to states the duty to impose compulsory safety standards that, at the federal level, are nominally “voluntary.: Unless they are revised, they will have a stultifying effect on self-driving vehicle development.

While the Obama administration has been publicly enthusiastic about the potential of self-driving vehicles, it argues the industry needs regulations that make consumers feel safer, regardless whether they actually are safer. The impression of security, fostered by regulation, will make them more willing to take risks, the argument goes, thus actually accelerating acceptance of self-driving vehicles.

Perhaps there’s something to that armchair psychology, but it’s not at all clear that a complicated regulatory regime is either suited to or capable of actually achieving enhanced safety. In fact, it could frustrate that very goal, channeling research into dead-end technologies and delaying research with unproductive compliance exercises. That’s why we need to guard against feel-good and, at best, technically superfluous rules and stand up for greater flexibility. It’s not enough that consumers simply feel safe; they must actually be safe. In the end, consumers won’t adopt self-driving technology if it underperforms.

The best way to ensure self-driving cars are safe is to open the door for innovation. As we gain more experience with the technology and trust grows, the need for psychologically reassuring oversight will diminish. Until then, regulators in the states and in Washington must resist the impulse to seek powers that slow innovation and push back the day when it will make all of our lives that much better.


Photo by Frederic Legrand – COMEO