Regulation

Trump Slams the Brakes on Self-Driving Cars

When government fails to provide useful regulations, innovation suffers. Whoops.

One reason good ideas stall as prototypes.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What if your car could keep you out of an accident by knowing what was coming around the corner?

No, I’m not just telling you what you already know about self-driving cars. Most of the self-driving prototypes we’re familiar with rely on sensors, which have limited range and can’t see past obstacles. That’s enough to prevent a lot of accidents -- but what if trouble is lurking outside their range of “sight”? Enter “V2V”: vehicle-to-vehicle communications that could make the dream of self-driving cars come true. Or not, if regulators decide not to push us in that direction.

The idea is that our cars could use radio spectrum to chat with each other even when they can’t see each other. Your car might learn that a car far ahead of them has suddenly braked hard , enabling you to safely brake well ahead of the problem. Or that a car approaching on a crossroads has lost its brakes and is about to career through the intersection.

Last December, the Obama administration pushed ahead with a rule that would require automakers to start deploying these systems in new cars within a few years. But not everyone was happy with the rule: It uses scarce spectrum that other industries would like to grab for themselves, and there are questions over whether the technology’s usefulness outweighs its hefty cost. Under Trump's transportation secretary, the rule has become “mired in regulatory review.”

This is the worst possible time for regulators to be stepping on the gas and then suddenly slamming on the brakes. Self-driving cars are coming: Maybe we can’t yet gauge their arrival time, but we certainly know they’re headed down the road at a pretty brisk clip. And while they are often hailed by techno-utopians as a triumph of the free market, their route and ETA is inevitably going to be partly determined by the government -- especially by regulators who outline safety and communications standards and by judges who settle the lingering question of who has liability for any accidents that do occur.

If self-driving cars are going to include vehicle-to-vehicle communications, then developers should know that now, rather than wasting a lot of time developing workarounds for problems that could more easily be solved with V2V. Or conversely, basing their plans around expected vehicle-to-vehicle systems that cease to be required by regulators, forcing them to go back to the drawing board.

Such slowdowns to innovation will have a price -- in dollars, in human lives. Last year, about 40,000 people were killed in auto accidents, a number roughly equal to the entire population of Norwich, Connecticut. When a life-saving technology is in development, even a year’s delay means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of needless deaths. It also means many more people struggling with serious injuries and chronic pain.

Regulators need to settle this question.

Which means we need to settle an even bigger question, about regulation in the age of Trump.

One of the first things Trump did as president was to sign an executive order requiring that two regulations be rolled back for every new one that was promulgated. As a longtime advocate of rolling back regulatory complexity, I found a lot to like in this rule. Unless strenuous effort is made to regularly prune them back, regulations have a tendency to blindly grow until they have wrapped the economy so tight that nothing can breathe, much less thrive. Trump’s executive order forces us to do some very necessary maintenance.

Unfortunately, it’s a rather crude instrument for the job. It’s possible that nothing more nuanced would actually work; nuance and flexibility, alas, give regulators quite a bit of discretion to put off an annoying chore. Just the same, we should recognize the dangers of cutting with such a dull knife.

In agencies that are dealing with a genuinely new and disruptive force -- one for which innovators need regulatory clarity before they can bring a product to market -- such a strict regulatory requirement faces them with an unpalatable dilemma. Every new regulation that is vitally necessary means finding two regulations that aren’t. But each of those dusty old rules was created for a reason. Some of those reasons were bad; in some cases the rule never worked as intended; and in others the rule later became obsolete. But that does not describe all of our regulations. And imagine the brutal publicity that will ensue if someone dies or gets hurt in an accident that could plausibly have been prevented by a rescinded rule.

An even larger problem is that the “two for one” rule doesn’t really tell us about the relative quality of the regulations involved. An agency could satisfy that executive order by issuing a terrible, stupid, costly regulation that forced power companies to rip out their windmills, as long as it repealed two sensible and necessary regulations that (for now) prevent factories from dumping toxic waste into our watersheds.

Reducing regulatory complexity is an important goal, but it cannot be our only goal. We ought to strive for less regulation, yes, but also for good regulation, and for regulation that gives companies enough clarity to innovate and build their businesses. Unfortunately, while the Trump administration has proven enthusiastic about the first goal, we’ve seen much less talk about the others. And given how long it has taken for Trump to staff all the agencies he oversees, we haven’t really had the personnel to deliver on things like better regulation, even if doing so were the Trump administration’s main priority.

Republicans have too often failed to have that conversation -- to formulate a serious and workable philosophy of what regulations our modern economy needs, as well as noting the many it could really do without. And in fairness to them, the voters have allowed it. We don’t want to waste our time thinking about all these complicated decisions and confusing details; we want to stake out our position, for or against that monolith called “regulation,” and leave it at that. We choose a direction, mostly blindly, and then we’re surprised when our government gets us into another crash.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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