To bring our collective visions of the future to fruition requires public policies that are humble enough to acknowledge just how much we can’t know about innovations and technologies that have not yet arrived.
That’s why it’s frustrating to see a collection of the most innovative and forward-thinking firms in the world—including Didi Chuxing, Lyft, Ola Cabs, Uber Technologies, Via Transportation and Zipcar—come together to support “shared mobility principles for livable cities ” that would foreclose all sorts of opportunities for economic and technological progress.
Some of the 10 principles—which look to lay down literal rules of the road for autonomous vehicles and other emerging transportation technologies while upholding goals like lower emissions and greater data-sharing—are totally unobjectionable. Number four declares that signatories will “engage with stakeholders” when they “may feel direct impacts on their lives.” That’s good news, because the universe of “stakeholders” who would be affected by some of the other principles includes just about everyone.
In particular, it’s No. 10 on the list that is especially problematic. It proposes that autonomous vehicles in urban areas “should be operated only in shared fleets.” Among the sundry benefits the principles document proposes would flow from a shared fleet model are:
Shared fleets can provide more affordable access to all, maximize public safety and emissions benefits, ensure that maintenance and software upgrades are managed by professionals, and actualize the promise of reductions in vehicles, parking, and congestion, in line with broader policy trends to reduce the use of personal cars in dense urban areas.
All of those things may prove true, and fleet ownership may be the model that makes the most economic sense for many urban consumers. But the only way to test whether any of it is true is through the free choices of consumers and manufacturers, not command-and-control centralized planning. Prescribing a one-size fits all ownership model to fit everyone’s varied lifestyles and consumer preferences is the antithesis of the American way.
If it were actually true that what city dwellers really need is less freedom to make transportation choices that best fit their own needs and preferences, most of these firms—especially the transportation network companies—wouldn’t even exist today. In the half-decade since the TNCs first emerged, they have empowered the disadvantaged to reintegrate into society, helped cut the number of DUIs and provided meaningful employment opportunities to those with the fewest options. All of those benefits were, until recently, unimagined and unknowable. Now, we take them for granted.
But that’s why there’s a terrible irony in companies that came to prominence, in part, precisely because they didn’t have fleets to service would now seek to enshrine a shared fleet model as the only option.
Policies that hinder competition are bad both for innovation and for the city dwellers of tomorrow. Therefore, as a stakeholder in this debate, we at R Street propose a principle of mobility of our own:
- That free people be allowed to move freely and in their transportation mode of choice, while paying for any primary and secondary costs of their actions on others.
Achieving “sustainable, inclusive, prosperous, and resilient cities” of the future demands we do no less.
Image by posteriori 
- “shared mobility principles for livable cities”: https://www.sharedmobilityprinciples.org/signatories/
- “posteriori”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/posteriori