Leave Self-Driving Cars Alone, NHTSA!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new federal rules for autonomous (aka “self-driving”) vehicles, far in advance of any automaker’s plans to introduce even one of these vehicles into the market. It is a statement to the extent of the United States Government’s overgrowth that detailed regulation of unmarketed and unannounced products is not immediately rejected as an absurd waste of tax dollars. Such regulation should almost always be rejected on principle, and this case is a great example.

NHTSA’s proposed rules are likely to delay the arrival of promising technology that could eliminate or substantially reduce whole categories of traffic accidents and driving complexity. In the process, NHTSA will, ironically, make our roads less safe, rather than more. Residents of urban centers will be denied the promise of cheaper, more efficient car sharing, and people with disabilities will continue to be virtually denied access to the roadway in droves. Meanwhile, taxpayers will continue to flush billions of dollars down the drain to subsidize inefficient, money-losing, poorly-maintained mass transit systems.

There are several reasons NHTSA’s autonomous vehicle regulations are a bad idea:

Regulating products that don’t exist, based on today’s concepts, needlessly limits future innovators without improving traffic safety for real people

Remember the controversy around the Chevy Volt’s fuel economy rating? GM and the government spent years wrangling over the EPA’s assessment methodology for fuel economy in plug-in hybrids and even then, produced an essentially useless set of numbers for actual drivers. Fuel economy, despite being a poor measure of the environmental footprint or the value of an electric or hybrid plug-in car, is a life or death matter for vehicle manufacturers facing federal minimum efficiency standards.

Regulating new, evolving technology is particularly toxic because technology changes quickly and regulations don’t (federal regulation particularly so). Also, we would be wise to ask where the purported safety risk is that justifies any regulation at all? Autonomous vehicles have not been implicated in any fatalities to date, but crashes involving manually operated vehicles kill tens of thousands of Americans every year.

States regulate vehicle and driver safety standards today. While even this system is painfully inflexible, it’s immensely preferable to a federal bureaucracy. NHTSA reacted slowly and its first move was to stifle a new technology with burdensome, self-serving regulation. We need look no further than California’s common-sense move to allow licensed drivers to operate autonomous vehicles to see the fruits of a less centralized process.

Mandatory accident notification imposes an unreasonable burden

One of the most troublesome proposals in NHTSA’s draft rules is the concept that vehicle manufacturers, rather than drivers, insurance agencies, or law enforcement, are expected to notify the federal government of all accidents involving autonomous vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers aren’t in a position to collect this data today, because they aren’t party to the accident reporting process. The infrastructure they’ll need to change that (along with the potential liability risk if they get it wrong), will make the vehicles more expensive and may outright end the development of some semi-autonomous models. Smaller manufacturers (or their investors) could find the infrastructure cost and liability risks untenable and may never even get started.

Over-regulating these vehicles only hurts the people who need them most. Market realities already mean autonomous vehicles must be safer and more accessible than the cars they replace.

Autonomous vehicles have a lot of promise: they could be safer at higher speeds than human drivers can due to improved reaction time and in-depth, specialized programming for roadway safety; they could put people on the road whose physical limitations make it unsafe or flat out impossible for them to drive today’s cars; most impressively, a fleet of automated buses with dispatch on-demand could dynamically adjust to transit demand in ways today’s fixed-route mass transit systems cannot.

The big problem with autonomous vehicles, and part of the reason they’re not here today, is the price point. The additional technology in these vehicles makes them expensive relative to today’s cars, and they need advantages relative to those cars to succeed. One of the must-haves is safety. Never mind the reality of traffic safety, Americans love their cars and feel in control on the road. For us to give up that control in any number, autonomous vehicles must have an impeccable safety record. Merely the perception that these vehicles are unsafe would sink them as a class.

Tyler Cowen notes some of the many potential benefits of autonomous vehicles in his New York Times article on May 28, 2011 (“Regulations Hinder Development of Driverless Cars”), but he also makes a troubling point:

The driverless car is illegal in all 50 states.

The significant changes in California and elsewhere show we are capable of change, and show how change is easier the closer we get to the local level. Our dangerous, traffic-choked roads desperately need the change. The last thing we need, on the other hand, is another bloated federal bureaucracy standing in the way of the safer roads it claims to desire.

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About Matt Murphy

I'm a software engineer with a certain company you've probably heard of. In my free time, I'm an advocate for individual liberty and free markets.
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