Techno-Phobic California Politicians “NHTSA” Google’s Driverless Car

Last week, I wrote about Google’s amazing new self-driving car, which CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman and I had the opportunity to test-ride in downtown Washington, D.C. The potential for this technology is huge, and it will likely revolutionize the way we think about travel, in addition to dramatically improving congestion, air quality, and auto safety.

But leave it to California to be a wet blanket of over-regulation and techno-pessimism. Late yesterday, California’s Senate unanimously passed a bill that greatly restricts certain advanced testing of driverless vehicles, particularly when it comes to the promising functions of on-demand driverless ride-shares or taxis. It included the following language:

Until such time that an autonomous vehicle meets the requirements established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for the operation of autonomous vehicles without the presence of a licensed driver, the autonomous vehicle may not be operated on public roads unless a licensed driver is seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle.

The bill, which was introduced by State Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley), is the first in the nation to place additional restrictions on autonomous vehicles, rather than update vehicle and traffic laws to explicitly permit this new technology like several states are currently doing. Sen. Padilla, OpenMarket readers may recall, is the same nanny-stater responsible for California’s remarkably stupid law banning energy drinks containing alcohol (and beer containing caffeine).

It is important to note that Sen. Padilla supports the concept of driverless cars, and Google backed this bill (because it’s the best they could get in California’s awful political environment?). But the bill is so poorly worded — and it restricts certain valuable potential functions — that it should be rejected in favor of a strong, better-worded bill. Mr. Padilla just has a funny way of showing his support for progress — one that defers to NHTSA, which does not yet seem to fully understand the concept of “autonomous” vehicles.

While NHTSA has yet to develop nationwide standards for Google-style autonomous vehicles (something like that is set for 2013), the agency is actually very strongly in favor of robo-cars. And for good reason. The majority of congestion (and resulting air pollution) and auto deaths are due to human error. Since computers have quicker response times, don’t get intoxicated, and aren’t prone to aggressive driving, accident and fatality rates would likely drop to a fraction of their current levels, in addition to smoothing out traffic flows that would greatly alleviate urban auto congestion.

But for politicians like Sen. Padilla, we don’t just need to regulate things that move. We need to regulate things before they move at all. It is the dense ruling political class of California, of which Mr. Padilla is a poster boy, that has radically transformed the Golden State’s once-enviable economic prosperity into the commercial dead zone it is fast becoming. Under the watch of California’s Omniscient Benevolent Regulatory Tyrants, two export industries in the state now lead the rest of the country: people and jobs.

It is time that the voters of California recognize that which is strangling their future: know-nothing politicos like Sen. Padilla. Throw these bums out! Or move to Austin.