Steer Clear of Overregulating Autonomous Autos

If anything drives transportation policy as a solution to congestion and mobility challenges in Georgia, it should be the recommendations in a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) that focuses on “driverless” cars.

The report, “Self-Driving Regulation,” described as one of the first comprehensive analyses of autonomous vehicle regulation, is written by CEI fellow Marc Scribner. Unfortunately, Georgia already is bringing up the rear on enabling legislation: Four states and the District of Columbia already have enacted laws recognizing the legality of these autonomous vehicles on the road; several others are considering legislation.

It bears pointing out that autonomous vehicles are not quite “driverless;” rather, they are self-driving. Volvo, Google and General Motors are working on autonomous vehicles. Volvo has already succeeded with autonomous vehicle “road trains,” convoys that, thanks to reduced drag, can be 20 percent more fuel-efficient, according to Digital Trends. Google’s self-driving cars have driven autonomously more than 300,000 accident-free miles. Interestingly, the only two Google traffic mishaps have been a) when one was being driven manually and b) when one was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

Georgia already is heavily invested in R&D at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Its Sting research vehicle is a modified Porsche Cayenne fitted with computers, GPS, laser scanners (for obstacle detection), video cameras, Doppler radars and safety control systems. Clearly, the technology is succeeding – cars are self-parking already – and as prices come down, it’s no surprise that Scribner predicts the cars will be available as early as 2020.

With more than 30,000 traffic fatalities every year, taking human error out of the equation will be of enormous public safety benefit. Fuel savings from more efficient use are of economic benefit. And reducing fits and starts and the spacing between vehicles will go far in reducing emissions, improving traffic flow and adding capacity on roads.

Scribner even points out a benefit that should please “smart growth” proponents: Autonomous transportation services such as “driverless” taxis may allow more city residents to forgo auto ownership and seek denser, more walkable living in or near urban cores.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is enthusiastic about the technology and issued guidance in 2013 for test driving but recommended against widespread use. NHTSA maintained there are “technological issues as well as human performance issues that must be addressed before self-driving vehicles can be made widely available.” 

So what’s the problem? Scribner’s 16-page report makes recommendations on legality, safety, infrastructure, products liability and transportation services. But two challenges stand out: liability issues in our litigious society and over-enthusiastic bureaucracies.

On bureaucracies, he warns: “regulator and lawmaker missteps could negatively impact the development of the technology, compromising design innovation and raising cost.”

“One of the biggest risks is getting the rules wrong and unnecessarily delaying consumer availability and/or increasing the prices faced by consumers,” Scribner noted recently.

“If automated vehicles are indeed safer than current manually driven vehicles, any delay or price increase means consumers will be stuck driving more dangerous vehicles. The stage is set for a classic ‘Death by Regulation’ event: well-meaning lawmakers and bureaucrats deny safer products to consumers out of an overabundance of caution, translating to increased injuries and deaths.”

He urges, “lawmakers and regulators should adopt a liberalized approach toward innovation and a cautious stance on legislation and regulation, particularly at this early stage.”

Liability issues are a far more complex issue. Consider the domino effect of the flood of “sticky pedal” claims and lawsuits on Toyota: billion-dollar liability, loss of reputation and poor earnings. Now imagine the litigation in a wreck involving one – or two or more – driverless cars.

Scribner cautions: “Products liability is already a complex area of law and will become even more so in an increasingly automated future. However, this does not mean automated vehicles ought to be subject to unnecessary burdens out of a precautionary principle concern.”

Georgia is already in the back seat on allowing autonomous cars; move on that. Then, as an information technology hub, we can take the lead in resolving technology challenges. Finally, putting this state’s smartest minds together to resolve the liability challenges will put Georgia in the driver’s seat.