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Incumbents Shouldn’t Slow Down Driverless Cars

· July 19, 2013

The DMV, society’s favorite place, could perhaps be abolished, so long as incumbents don’t stop self-driving cars in their tracks. Google’s contingent of self-driving cars has already racked up over 435,000 thousand miles without incident (indeed, the first ever accident was caused by a human driver). In most states, these cars have dubious legal status, but that may be changing. Last September, California became the third state to allow them to legally traverse the roads. This limited preemptive enabling of such a new technology is exciting news for observers of disruption, but the incumbents are already getting riled up.

The Wall Street Journal is now reporting that:

Google Inc.’s first self-driving car products, expected to hit the market around 2017, may not reflect the full capabilities of the company’s technology, senior industry sources familiar with the company tell CIO Journal. Google and other tech companies are under pressure from policy makers and the auto industry, which favor taking a more gradualist approach to self-driving cars, a technology that could have a broad impact on transportation, public safety, energy and more.

It’s a frightening validation of a different WSJ piece, published just last week:

If it weren’t for fear among innovators of getting too far ahead of U.S. laws and regulations, there would already be cars on the road doing almost as much driving as humans….As a result of litigation and regulatory uncertainty in the U.S., most auto innovation is happening in Europe.

There is enormous potential in terms of safety and reduced travel time if we can manage to graduate from horseless carriages to driverless cars. The shift away from humans being fully in control will take time, but if governments don’t stand in the way of innovation, we will someday look back on people driving cars being as quaint as horses powering our transportation.

The danger of preventing self-driving cars from taking to the streets is twofold: innovators lose out, and US competitiveness is damaged. The self-driving cars movement is driven by Google, a US company. Surely, with news that Detroit — a seat of the US auto-industry — is filing for bankruptcy, the US can’t afford to sacrifice the opportunity for such an innovative competitive edge.

The delayed advent of self-driving cars also hurts consumers, who will benefit almost immeasurably:

When people are no longer in control of their cars they will not need driver insurance—so goodbye to motor insurers and brokers. Traffic accidents now cause about 2m hospital visits a year in America alone, so autonomous vehicles will mean much less work for emergency rooms and orthopedic wards. Roads will need fewer signs, signals, guard rails and other features designed for the human driver; their makers will lose business too. When commuters can work, rest or play while the car steers itself, longer commutes will become more bearable, the suburbs will spread even farther and house prices in the sticks will rise. When self-driving cars can ferry children to and from school, more mothers may be freed to re-enter the workforce. The popularity of the country pub, which has been undermined by strict drink-driving laws, may be revived. And so on.

Of course, the economic benefits, like reduced burden on the healthcare system, are apparent, but there’s an impressive number of industries self-driving cars will disrupt. Street-sign makers, driving schools, and people who make drunk driving PSAs will all have to contend with a different marketplace. Fox News even went so far as to erroneously claim that terrorists can hack into automated cars and cause crashes (maybe they’ll drive better than the average American). For consumers and American business as a whole, these cars are a great thing, but the roadblocks ahead are apparent. Regulators would do well to keep American trade and consumer interests in mind as they work to introduce self-driving-DMV-busting-kid-shuttling cars into the market.

Benjy Cannon is an intern at the Computer & Communications Industry Association. 

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.