Uber raced Google (and other competitors) to get self-driving (or driverless or autonomous) cars on the road and won, but it wouldn’t have been possible if government permission had been required.
Autonomous Uber taxicabs are expected to hit the streets of Pittsburgh any day now to great media scrutiny. These won’t be truly driverless cars because each vehicle will be manned by a specially trained safety driver or engineer, but the goal is for vehicles to be completely driverless soon enough so that passengers sit back and get shuttled to their destinations.
While the headlines talk about whether autonomous cars are safe enough, the real story is that government has stayed out of the way of innovation rather than being a roadblock to it. There is no specific local, state or federal legislation on driverless cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will issue guidelines on autonomous vehicles, but this is not law.
Compared to other cities that blocked, protested, and campaigned to keep Uber’s traditional ridesharing business out, Pittsburgh has been particularly welcoming to Uber. A couple of years ago, Pittsburgh’s mayor and Pennsylvania’s governor fought attempts to add regulations on ridesharing companies.
So it wasn’t a surprise that they would be the place for Uber to test its next big idea to disrupt transportation. In addition, Pittsburgh reportedly leased a large plot near the city’s waterfront for a testing track.
The mayor’s comments demonstrate what forward-thinking public policy should do:
“It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber,” said Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, who said Uber planned to use about 100 modified Volvo sport-utility vehicles for the passenger trials. The vehicles will also have a human monitor behind the wheel. “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”
Peduto is so on board with self-driving cars that he took one home, tweeting about his experience as the first mayor to be “chauffeured” by an autonomous Uber.
Both leadership support and the lack of specific regulations on driverless cars are credited with creating an opportunity for companies like Uber to innovate in this space:
Officials from Pennsylvania’s transportation agency said they interpreted that silence on driverless technology as a green light. Some state officials said they also believed that driverless cars could be safer than those steered by drivers, helping avoid driver-related deaths.
“We’d be committing governmental malpractice if we didn’t pursue this technology,” said Roger Cohen, the policy director of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Not everyone is pleased of course. Today, experts are piling on the anti-driverless-car bus, suggesting that the technology needs regulation first. They point to very real limitations that can be dangerous such as that self-driving cars have difficulty “seeing” in bad weather conditions (i.e., snow storms and downpours) and don’t do too well with bridges – of which Pittsburgh has a lot. The Washington Post reports:
“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”
It may be that Uber eventually will be on a collision with future legislation. Public policy always lags behind technology, but finds a way to catch up. The innovator doesn’t comb through dense books of regulations or consult a bureaucrats with limited (or no) knowledge before deciding whether to jump in and solve a problem with a good or service that makes life better for communities and society. However, wherever policymakers see a place where the market is operating unfettered, they want to find a way in. To be clear, public safety is paramount and should not be ignored. However, there should be a way to leave room for innovation rather than stifling it.
As a former advisor for both Bush presidents noted in Recode, driverless cares represent a “Wild West” of public policy. That should not be an invitation for government officials to rein in innovation and push back on those brave companies willing to venture out into the unknown. It will be a good challenge though to force us to address outdated laws and regulations that can’t keep up with technology. Perhaps the best approach is the one that allows for the most flexibility and freedom.