With headlines galore signaling the coming of the driverless car, the federal government has done what it does best. It has announced a plan to regulate.
The gleaming Department of Transportation complex houses hundreds of people who have come to Washington for essentially one reason: to regulate. Show them an innovation as juicy as the driverless car, and they begin salivating like hungry dogs.
The first steps have been carefully laid out in a 112-page document prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It provides “guidance” as to how the industry should go about launching the autonomous car and its many related technologies.
The NHTSA document makes it clear the federal government will be taking an aggressive regulatory posture. In his discussion of the document, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx spoke of giving the NHTSA “additional authorities” for evaluating the technology before it comes to market.
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The problem with government approvals is they are frequently misguided. When federal officials take a liking to a certain technology, for example, they bestow that technology with great advantages over its competitors.
It’s very possible in this selection process that a self-driving technology with long-term promise will get the short end of the government’s stick, while another will receive favorable treatment based on bureaucratic judgments.
This isn’t right. Car companies are at their most efficient when they can develop products on their own and under their own budget. It is still early in the driverless era, but not too early to consider cost. On the government side, the autonomous car will mean more committees, more studies and more experts — and taxpayers will pick up the tab.
Another contentious aspect of the plan is the government’s desire for companies to share their development data with each other. Hearing this, one has visions of Thomas Edison being told to share his plans for an electric light bulb with his competitors. Or Bill Gates being asked to share his early computer designs with other tech pioneers.
But, of course, this is the Obama administration at its anti-competitive best. Everybody should know what everyone else is up to. It’s a shame life doesn’t really work that way. When incentives are removed, so is the motivation to do better than your competitors.
Truly autonomous vehicles are probably a long way off. All the major companies are working on it, and some driverless features can already in today’s modern car. But daunting questions remain: How will the driverless cars mix with the 250 million vehicles currently being driven in the U.S. by humans? And who among us wants to sit in a driverless car on icy or rain-slick roads?
So yes, the driverless car is coming. We’re just not sure as to exactly when.
When the French futurist Jules Verne published his fictional “From the Earth to the Moon” in 1865, the whole world was abuzz with talk of actually traveling to the moon. Every young boy imagined himself a pilot of a spacecraft, and a century of science fiction was created overnight.
But it was 104 years before Neil Armstrong actually stepped down on the dusty lunar surface.
Similarly, the driverless car has captured our imaginations. And the hundreds of scientists and engineers at work on autonomous technologies are the best indication something really good is coming. Until then, the federal government should do us all a favor and let the driverless era come to life with as few rules and regulations as possible.
Bill Noack is a Maryland consultant who has advised top industrial companies.