Driverless Cars Are On the Way. Here’s How Not to Regulate Them.

Nevada, Florida and California have all legalized driverless cars, and the District is considering whether to follow suit. The goal is worthwhile, and the potential for the technology — which could be available to consumers within a decade — is great. But members of the D.C. Council have a funny way of showing their support for autonomous vehicles. In fact, a bill introduced by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) would greatly restrict the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles in the city.

As with California’s recently enacted law, Cheh’s bill requires that a licensed driver be present in the driver’s seat of these vehicles. While seemingly inconsequential, this effectively outlaws one of the more promising functions of autonomous vehicle technology: allowing disabled people to enjoy the personal mobility that most people take for granted. Google highlighted this benefit when one of its driverless cars drove a legally blind man to a Taco Bell.

Bizarrely, Cheh’s bill also requires that autonomous vehicles operate only on alternative fuels. While the Google Self-Driving Car may manifest itself as an eco-conscious Prius, self-driving vehicle technology has nothing to do with hybrids, plug-in electrics or vehicles fueled with natural gas. The technology does not depend on vehicle make or model, but Cheh is seeking to mandate as much. That could delay the technology’s widespread adoption for no good reason.

Currently, automakers are mildly skeptical of the ability of driverless cars to appeal to consumers. An alternative-fuel mandate would make them even more so. From 2010 and 2011, sales of hybrid cars declined from 2.4 percent to 2.2 percent of total vehicles sold in the United States. The consumer appeal of autonomous vehicle technology is far from assured, but Cheh’s bill would tell automakers to narrow their potential market even further.

Another flaw in Cheh’s bill is that it would impose a special tax on drivers of autonomous vehicles. Instead of paying fuel taxes, “Owners of autonomous vehicles shall pay a vehicle-miles travelled (VMT) fee of 1.875 cents per mile.” Administrative details aside, a VMT tax would require drivers to install a recording device to be periodically audited by the government. There may be good reasons to replace fuel taxes with VMT fees, but greatly restricting the use of a potentially revolutionary new technology by singling it out for a new tax system would be a mistake.

At a hearing on the bill in October, Cheh gushed about a test ride she took in Google’s Self-Driving Car in May: “I found it to be absolutely amazing. I didn’t know we had advanced that far.” I, too, found my May test ride impressive and am thrilled that a technology that can greatly improve traffic safety, offer disabled people an unprecedented level of personal mobility and fundamentally change the way we travel is so close. But no one knows precisely how autonomous vehicle technology will develop or be adopted by consumers. Cheh’s bill presumes to predict and understand these future complexities and then imposes a regulatory straitjacket based on those assumptions.

It’s good that the District seeks to embrace innovation with this law. If passed without significant changes, however, Cheh’s bill will unduly restrict many promising vehicle features, prevent the wider voluntary adoption of this promising technology through foolish green-government paternalism and create a new tax system without proper consideration. She should withdraw this bill and go back to the drawing board.