Self-Driving Cars Promise Safer Highways if Regulators Keep Hands Off, Study Says

Wider adoption of technology to allow vehicles to drive themselves promises to usher in a new era of safer motoring — as long as lawmakers and regulators don’t stifle innovation with premature and excessive restrictions, according to a report released Wednesday by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Autonomous vehicles could, for example, reduce the stress of commuting by car and entice more people to move to more distant suburbs while simultaneously generating demand for self-driving taxis and ride-sharing services within bustling urban cores, wrote Marc Scribner, a fellow at the Washington-based think tank.

When it comes to safety, Scribner warns that over-regulation before autonomous vehicles are ready to hit the road in significant numbers could ultimately hamper technological innovation. As an example, Scribner points to state laws passed recently in Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan, and the District of Columbia specifically addressing the legality of self-driving vehicles.

That has led to a widespread impression that such vehicles are illegal elsewhere. In reality, “state motor vehicle codes are decades old and simply do not consider the possibility of a highway vehicle being directed without real-time human input,” Scribner wrote. “Policy makers should keep in mind this distinction between legalization, which implies that autonomous vehicles are presently illegal, and recognizing legality.”

The white paper is likely to influence many conservatives on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is working this year on a surface transportation authorization that is likely to include some safety-related language. Late last year, panel Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., took his first ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars and held a panel on what direction future regulation might take.

Outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in her farewell speech on Monday at the National Press Club in Washington that autonomous vehicles and their underlying technologies promise enormous gains in safety, but she urged regulators to make sure such systems were available on all vehicles, not just the most expensive models.

“Technology has the ability to intervene when humans fail,” Hersman said. “If we can take the technology that’s already in vehicles — adaptive cruise control, preemptive braking — and we can work on that technology to the point that it can eliminate or reduce or mitigate crashes, we will save a lot more lives. It shouldn’t be just in the most expensive cars. Safety shouldn’t just be for people who can afford it.”