In praise of driverless cars, don’t regulate them into oblivion

My column is here, one excerpt is this:

The benefits of driverless cars are potentially significant. The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably. Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers…

The point is not that such cars could be on the road in large numbers tomorrow, but that we ought to give the cars — and other potential innovations — a fair shot so that a prototype can become a commercial product someday. Michael Mandel, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute, compares government regulation of innovation to the accumulation of pebbles in a stream. At some point too many pebbles block off the water flow, yet no single pebble is to blame for the slowdown. Right now the pebbles are limiting investment in future innovation.

A few points:

1. I couldn’t fit it in the column, but it is an interesting question why there is no popular movement to encourage driverless cars.  Commuting costs are very high and borne by many people.  (Here is Annie Lowery on just how bad commutes can be.)  You can get people to hate plastic bags, or worry about a birth certificate, but they won’t send a “pro-driverless car” postcard to their representatives.  The political movement has many potential beneficiaries but few natural constituencies.  (Why?  Does it fail to connect to an us vs. them struggle?)  This is an underrated source of bias in political outcomes.

2. In the longer run a lot of driverless cars would be very small.  Imagine your little mini-car zipping out and bringing you back some Sichuan braised fish, piping hot.

3. If a traffic situation gets really hairy, the driverless car can be programmed to pull over and stop.  Oddly I think that perfecting the GPS system might be a trickier problem than making them safer than driver-run cars.  Computers don’t drink, but they will drive around the same block forever and ever if they don’t understand the construction situation.  Even the best chess-playing computers don’t very well “understand” blockaded positions and perpetual check.

4. This isn’t a column about driverless cars at all.  It’s about our ambivalent attitudes toward major innovations.  It’s also about how the true costs of regulation are often hidden.  A lot of potentially good innovations never even reach our eyes and ears as concepts, much less realities.  They don’t have tags comparable to that of the driverless car.

5. Via Michelle Dawson, here is a list of driverless trains.  Here are links on robot-guided surgery.


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