Will Government Get in the Way of Self-Driving Cars?

As I approached my 16th birthday, I faced an agonizing decision: Go to the California DMV and obtain my driver’s license or wait one more day. The cause of such teenage angst? The day after my 16th birthday, I was scheduled to have my braces removed. The choice was between a new license with a photograph of those perfectly straightened pearly whites or one displaying me in all my tinseled glory for the subsequent five years. I chose tinseled glory. Waiting another day was out of the question.

If that sounds quaint, it should. Today, reaching the driving age doesn’t seem to hold the magical allure it did in my day. Last year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a survey indicating that only 30 percent of today’s 16-year-olds are licensed drivers and only 50 percent are licensed by age 18. That’s down from 44 percent of 16-year-olds and 66 percent of 18-year-olds in the early 1990s. I’ve seen it up close. While my children obtained their licenses almost to the day when they were legally able, they were a distinct minority among their peers. (More on that later.)

But why the decline?  There are many possible reasons. Obtaining a license is more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive than ever. Having a license may not hold the social status it once did, with social media replacing the car as “vehicle” of youthful interaction (to some pundits’ dismay). Who knows? But it may not matter, anyway.

In 2010 Google announced it had been testing a fleet of self-driving cars that had racked up over 140,000 miles on public roads. Officially called automated or autonomous vehicles, and colloquially referred to as driverless cars, they promise to dramatically reduce the number of car accidents by minimizing human driving error—a factor in over 90 percent of crashes. This, of course, has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives annually, significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, and offer greatly improved transportation access to people who otherwise would have a hard time getting around, mainly the elderly, the disabled, and yes, teenagers with braces.

Sound exciting? Absolutely! But, as CEI’s Marc Scribner points out in a new report, there are significant technical hurdles to overcome before we see highly automated vehicles being sold commercially. And who knows how long it will take for society to relinquish even a little control over the most cherished symbol of modern mobility. If you think it’s hard to get men to stop for directions now, wait ‘til we’re asked to let go of the steering wheel!

But I remain optimistic. I am sure drivers and owners of horse and buggy and wagons said the same thing when the first puffs of railroad smoke appeared on the horizon. And let’s face it; we already have nearly autonomous airplanes.

So, yes, the impediments are real. But autonomous vehicles, if allowed to develop in an entrepreneurial and competitive environment, would dramatically shift the role of the automobile and its impact on society for the better. And there are genuine public policy impediments to that. Such a shift will require modernization of federal and state motor vehicle codes, auto safety regulations, infrastructure investments, products liability law, and local transportation service regulations to adapt to this changing future.

And therein lies the challenge. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, government abhors a regulatory vacuum. And bad regulation can kill. If automated vehicles are truly safer than cars on the road today, any delay or significant increase in price increase will force consumers to drive more dangerous cars for longer than necessary, leading to more injuries and deaths. This is the phenomenon my colleague Sam Kazman calls “Death by Regulation,” whereby overly cautious lawmakers and regulators unnecessarily hold up the introduction of safer products.

The single worst moment of my parenting life was viewing my son’s mangled car as my wife and I skidded to a stop after receiving “that call.” Not much was left. Several years (and lawyers) later, those EMS lights and mindboggling traffic disruptions are but a memory. Would a driverless car have prevented that accident? Impossible to answer. We live in a risky world, but thankfully, markets and the innovation they make possible have ways of constantly creating opportunities to mitigate those risks. Yet all too often, government gets in the way of that discovery and experimentation process. Lawmakers need to remember that.

Now, if we could just genetically modify teeth so as to avoid braces.