Self-driving vehicles

No Innovation Without Regulation: 'Safety Experts' Alarmed by Uber's Self-Driving Cars in Pittsburgh

What is not permitted is prohibited



One the laziest tropes in journalism is to report on the roll-out of a new technology and then round up alarmed activists who tut-tut that innovators are once again outracing the regulators. A perfect example of this type of story appears on the front page of today's Washington Post: "For some, Uber's self-driving taxi test is not something to hail."

Sometime this month, the ride-hailing service Uber is going to start putting around 100 self-driving Volvos on the streets of Pittsburgh. The goal is to test out the technology and accumulate data. While cars will drive themselves, each will be manned by two Uber engineers who can take over the driving if something goes awry. Customers can choose to opt-in to the program or not.

Sadly, in 21st century America there is now always a cadre of anti-technology zealots ready to stand athwart progress yelling stop. From the Post:

Uber's decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators. …

Over the past several years, self-driving cars have begun to be tested on the roads of at least four states. Yet the term "autonomous vehicles" is not mentioned anywhere in the federal motor-vehicle code — there are no safety standards for them, and no federal guidelines for testing. In Pennsylvania, regulators have proposed legislation that would allow for tests and require that companies doing them have insurance, and report information such as cybersecurity breaches, crashes and times when an engineer had to take over the wheel. But Uber's experiment will begin well before those proposals ever come up for a vote.

The article further notes that two years ago at "a Washington Post forum, Chris Urmson, the former Google executive who once led the company's self-driving car project, said 'one of the great things about American innovation' was that if the law 'doesn't say you can't do it, then you can.'" Just imagine!

To signify how dangerously disdainful of regulation Uber is to its readers, the Post mentions that CEO Travis Kalanick had "once extolled the virtues of 'principled confrontation' and used an icon of Ayn Rand's libertarian opus 'The Fountainhead' as his Twitter avatar."

The Post suggests, "Pittsburgh might be the exact environment that innovators love to leap into — a legal void that can be defined by technologists, not bureaucrats. The question is how fast, and under what conditions, should the testing of a life-changing technology occur."

No, the real question is why do so many reporters and editors think that innovators should have to ask for permission before they are allowed to bring us new products and services?

For more background see my July feature article, "Will Politicians Block Our Driverless Future?"