After Elaine Herzberg became the first person killed by a self-driving car, the proponents of government control quickly urged greater federal regulation of the nascent industry. But such regulation would not enhance safety. Most likely, it would kill more people, by delaying the deployment of safer automotive technology.
One of the stupidest ideas for regulating self-driving vehicles has been put forth by Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer at University College London, in the current Issues in Science and Technology. Stilgoe suggests that we adopt "a regulatory mechanism analogous to the Food and Drug Administration. New technologies would be systematically tested before release and continually monitored once they are out in the wild."
Demanding regulatory approval before these technologies hit the market would be a big shift. It would also force governments to rediscover skills that have been allowed to atrophy, such as those of technology assessment. If these technologies are as new and exciting as their proponents say they are, then we should ask what new rules are needed to ensure that they are safe, broadly accessible, and free from problematic unintended consequences.
First, let's just say that the government's record of skillful technological assessment is spotty.
Second, a 2014 report from the Brookings Institution argues compellingly that the current liability system is quite capable of resolving any issues that arise from the deployment of autonomous vehicles. Uber, I'll note, has apparently already settled with Herzberg's family.
Concerning accessibility, Stilgoe asserts that "self-driving car technology is set to benefit the same people who have benefitted most from past technological change—people who are already well-off." This amounts to arguing that no one should have a Tesla until everyone can have one.
In fact, Stilgoe gets it exactly backwards. Uber, Waymo, and Lyft are not developing autonomous vehicles that will sit 23 hours per day in their owners' driveways. They are aiming to create fleets of robo-taxis that will dramatically reduce the costs of transportation for most folks living in metropolitan areas. A team of researchers led by Lawrence D. Burns, director of the Program on Sustainable Mobility at Columbia University, estimates that fleets of shared self-driving vehicles could cut a family's transportation costs by as much as 75 percent. Such a steep drop would greatly benefit families in the bottom third of the income distribution, who spend about 16 percent of their earnings on transportation. (Folks in the top third, by contrast, spend just over 8 percent of theirs on getting around.) Children, the disabled, and the elderly would also especially benefit from access to autonomous vehicles.
Stilgoe makes clear what worries him about robocars when he describes the horrors created by conventional automobiles:
The technology brought huge benefits from increased mobility, but also enormous risks. In addition to what the author J.G. Ballard called the "pandemic cataclysm" of road deaths, the nation's enthusiasm for cars also made it harder to support alternative modes of transport. The conveniences of cars trumped other concerns and allowed for the reshaping of landscapes. Vast freeways and flyovers were built right into the hearts of cities, while the network of passenger railroads was allowed to wither. Around the cities' edges, sprawl made possible by two-car families leaked outwards. By the 1950s, the United States—and much of the world—had been reshaped in the car's image.
Basically, Stilgoe is worried that people will do things that he doesn't think that they should want or be allowed to do. Stilgoe's rather absurd implication is that an FDA-like Automobile Regulatory Administration around 1900 would have been able to anticipate and plan for stop lights, divided highways, turn signals, shopping malls, suburban homes, automobile dealerships, mechanic training and repair garages, speed limits, long distance trucking, licensing drivers, gasoline service stations, and so much more.
As for the "pandemic cataclysm" of automobile fatalities, it is certainly true that as more cars took to the roads, more deadly accidents occurred. But thank goodness Congress did not think it necessary to regulate the development of automobiles after an electric car ran over Henry Bliss in New York City in 1899. Doing so might have locked in the much less safe horse carriage transportation system for longer. While the figures are not dispositive, the fatality rate per mile traveled via horse-drawn* transportation appears to be higher than that for automobiles.
The February 18, 1914, issue of the automobile trade magazine The Horseless Age estimated that motorized vehicles already accounted in 1913 for about two-thirds of the vehicle miles traveled in New York State. This would consequently mean that "if the number of fatalities caused by automobiles were double those caused by horses, the proportion would be no greater in relation to the amount of traffic or travel." The Horseless Age then calculated, "In the big cities the proportion of motor traffic is greater than on State roads, but, according to the accident reports, there are 302 deaths due to motor vehicles in Greater New York in 1913 and 170 due to horses, or only one and three quarter times as many of the former, showing that, relatively, the motor vehicle is actually less dangerous than horse-drawn vehicles."
Lastly, a quick word about the "vast freeways" that earned Stilgoe's ire. The advent of roaming on-demand fleets of cheaply rentable robotaxis will free up huges swaths of urban land currently devoted to parking lots. A typical highway with all human-driven vehicles uses only 5 percent of the roadway space, according to a 2013 study by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. The researchers predict that a 50 percent autonomous road fleet would boost highway capacity by 22 percent; an 80 percent robot fleet will goose capacity 50 percent; and a fully automated highway would see its throughput zoom by 80 percent.
Stilgoe urges us to "ask what new rules are needed to ensure that they are safe, broadly accessible, and free from problematic unintended consequences." The short answer is none. Conventional cars didn't need federal regulation and neither do self-driving cars.
* Disclosure: I gave up riding horses after I left my family's farm. When I asked a friend if he still rode, he replied, "No. I don't like the weight to IQ ratio." A sentiment I heartily endorse.
See ReasonTV's excellent "Self-Driving Cars Will Make Most Safety Regulations Unnecessary" below: