Democrats Hitting the Brakes on Driverless Car Innovation

Despite our “conservative” moniker, which seems to imply that we’re unwilling to take risk, the reality is that one of Republican’s foundation principles is encouraging private sector innovation. Democrats, on the other hand, simply don’t get it.

To see why, just look at the Obama administration’s Strategy for American Innovation, which contains “policies to promote critical components of the American innovation ecosystems,” thus playing a “critical role in guiding the development of new policy initiatives that can help unleash the transformative innovation that leads to long-term economic growth.

But how can government bureaucrats determine what the “critical components” of those ecosystems are? How can they make value judgments about which innovations will “lead to long-term economic growth”? Who is in a position to pick and choose which desired innovations receive the benefit of “new policy initiatives” meant to encourage them?

Democrats fundamentally believe that the government is in a position to understand what America needs (rather than what Americans want) and to fiddle with the policy levers to foster their desired ends. History has proven them wrong again and again. The main problem is that this worldview urged them to lurch from trend-to-trend, desperate to regulate something they don’t understand only to figure it out well after the next big idea has already emerged. In that way, they are vociferous defenders of the status quo, hoping upon hope that economic progress will stop long enough for government bureaucrats to find their footing. And when they finally realize that the future waits for no man, they do their best to slam the brakes on innovation, lest they lose the cozy position they’ve developed with entrenched interests.

Adam Thierer, writing for the Cato Institute, advocates for a different path, permissionless innovation:

For innovation and growth to blossom, entrepreneurs need a clear green light from policymakers that signals a general acceptance of risk-taking—especially risk-taking that challenges existing business models and traditional ways of doing things. We can think of this disposition as permissionless innovation and if there was one thing every policymaker could do to help advance long-term growth, it is to first commit themselves to advancing this ethic and making it the lodestar for all their future policy pronouncements and decisions.

Effectively, this would change the burden of proof such that those who favor preemptive regulation have to explain why ongoing experimentation should be stopped, as compared to Democrats “precautionary principle,” which holds that innovations should be curtailed until entrepreneurs can prove they won’t cause some unspoken harm.

To see the deleterious effect that Democrats’ “better safe than sorry” approach is having on the potential for life-changing innovation, consider self-driving cars.

In mid-December, California unveiled a set of preliminary regulations for so-called autonomous vehicles, an emerging technology being pursued by California-based companies like Google and Tesla. The regulations include requirements that all driverless cars have a steering wheel, pedals, and, in a total debasement of the entire concept of the technology , a human driver with an “autonomous vehicle operator certificate.” Yes, in California, driverless cars must have drivers. In addition, the rules take the unprecedented step of requiring autonomous cars to pass a test administered by a third party before being leased. I say leased because the rules also prohibit auto makers from selling the cars outright.

Unsurprisingly, Google was a bit miffed.

“Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu said in a statement. “We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”

But technological ceilings are comfortable and regulators love comfortable, even when, as in this case, “comfortable” means more traffic fatalities. The LA Times’ Jon Healey writes:

Think about this for a moment. Autonomautos are just like conventional cars in every respect but one: they replace the distracted and error-prone human operator with technology that has an unlimited attention span, processes data faster than humanly possible and is not allowed to violate traffic laws.

This is an obvious upgrade, at least conceptually. The only real question is whether the software and sensors are up to the demands of real-world driving. And the best way to find that out is to test the cars in real-world situations, with ordinary people using them the way they were meant to be used.

Yes, driverless car companies are already proving that their products are safer than traditional drivers. But regulators don’t really care about facts, if they mean accelerating innovation. Instead, they want to pump the brakes, because that means making sure that regulators continue to be steering the economy.