Set Self-Driving Cars Free
In publishing new guidelines for automated vehicles this week, the U.S. Transportation Department tacitly acknowledged two important truths: This technology will probably be great. And no one knows what will happen.
The regulators took a restrained approach, offering a safety checklist for manufacturers and better guidance for state officials but stopping short of issuing restrictive new rules. That's prudent: As President Barack Obama put it, with mild understatement, "Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies."
Yet the new guidelines should still have some substantial benefits. They'll help states avoid creating conflicting rules that would require cars to turn off certain features when crossing borders. They should give companies and investors more confidence, as well as help clarify liability when things go wrong. Not least, they're likely to help the U.S. maintain its lead in a promising new field.
And that field is booming. In little more than a decade, self-driving cars have evolved from a futuristic dream to a near-prosaic reality. Ford and General Motors both say they're building fleets for ride-sharing services. Uber is using them to ferry passengers across Pittsburgh. Google's version has traversed more than 1.5 million miles, with an exemplary safety record. The Boston Consulting Group estimates that the market for such vehicles will reach $42 billion by 2025. Goldman Sachs is even more optimistic.
The companies competing in this market are pursuing very different approaches, and the driverless car is likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. That's all the more reason that regulation of the industry ought to be flexible.
In time, the technology could well prove revolutionary. Given that human error causes 94 percent of car crashes, it seems likely to save many lives. It could steeply reduce congestion and pollution. It may prove invaluable to the elderly and the disabled, and a boon to the poor. Urban landscapes may be transformed for the better. Commuting might become a delight, and jostling for parking a thing of the past.
It isn't all good news, of course. Some unsettling ethical dilemmas are on the horizon. The fatal crash of a Tesla in May, in which the car's owner had its Autopilot feature engaged, suggests that automation comes with risks of its own. Privacy concerns, legal conundrums and security flaws will all abound in the years ahead.
And plenty of businesses are likely to be upended. Insurers are quite concerned about their bottom lines. U.S. automakers may see sales decline by 40 percent over the next 25 years, reckons Barclays, erasing some 25,000 jobs in the process. Truckers, cabbies and delivery drivers should also be concerned: By one estimate, automation could put 2.6 million of them out of work.
None of that is reason to hold back driverless cars; the potential benefits are too great. And U.S. regulators have done the right thing by not unduly inhibiting them. But as always when pondering the wonders of Silicon Valley, it's important to remember who's losing out, too.
--Editors: Timothy Lavin, Mary Duenwald.
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