All Commentary
Friday, November 27, 2015

Technology Could End the Horrible Thanksgiving Drive – If We Let It

Thanksgiving travel is about to get much easier

This week, 42 million Americans will hop into their cars and arduously travel home for the Thanksgiving holiday, driving over 214 miles on average. In the near future, this may not be the norm: driverless cars will liberate us from the headache and frustration of long holiday commutes.

This dynamic technology will produce tangible benefits to the environment, the economy, and most importantly, human well-being. But only if lawmakers get out of the way.

Autonomous vehicles are automobiles that operate independently of human control. Once mere science fiction, this technology will soon become the most important technological advancement of the twenty-first century. It will revolutionize transportation as we know it — just as the Internet revolutionized communications and knowledge sharing in ways we could have never envisioned.

Currently, over 25 companies are working on developing this technology, and many are progressing closer to usable consumer models. Theoretically, these vehicles could be driving on highways within the decade. The only factor that might stop mass deployment of these vehicles is the tendency for government to concoct misguided regulations.

Legislators may have good intentions at heart, but their ideas will only delay widespread availability of this pioneering technology. 

As a result, it’s unclear exactly when we will see driverless cars on the road. Ryan Hagemann of the Niskanen Center argues, it “Isn’t a technological question, it’s a regulatory and policy question.”

One recent piece of legislation, the SPY Car Act, sponsored by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would mandate federal safety guidelines for driverless cars. But until autonomous vehicles are launched, tested, and available to the public, how can regulators know what safety guidelines are most appropriate?

Some will argue that the auto industry has a history of neglecting customer safety, citing the infamous Ford Pinto as an example. But why does Ford still remain an automotive powerhouse? Because businesses have strong incentives to fix such blunders quickly and credibly. No one has more to gain from establishing reliable safety standards than the manufacturers themselves.

Car companies all over the world are in an arms race for the premier standard of safety features. Recent innovations in collision avoidance technology, like automatic braking, show that manufacturers are continually generating technologies to increase driver safety.

The free market has also responded to customer safety concerns with the growth of independent websites that review and rank vehicle safety standards. In other words, we do not need to depend on government for what the private sector can and already does supply.

Regulators often use a “better safe than sorry” approach, but too often that “protects” the public right out of lifesaving benefits. Lawmakers and the public should focus on ensuring the many potential advantages of this emerging technology, not on nebulous fears.

Driverless cars will help the environment by allowing for more efficient driving. Automatic, instantaneous reaction will allow cars to drive closer to one another, eliminating the delaying effects of rubbernecking, and resulting in less time that automobiles spend on the roads. This will significantly reduce harmful emissions.

These factors will also create economic benefits. Less cars on the road will reduce congestion, allowing quicker delivery of goods and services. Manufacturers will be able to ship products around the country at much lower costs, and these savings will accrue to consumers.

Most importantly, driverless cars will save lives. Approximately 30,000 people die each year in car accidents. But this technology offers the prospect of minimizing human error, which is responsible for roughly 90 percent of fatal accidents.

The benefits of this technology to human life and well-being are immense.

Mass adoption of these vehicles will likely result in the government losing substantial revenue from DUI violations and traffic fines. But the roads will be safer, the air cleaner, and economy stronger, and all due to innovation in the marketplace.

Senators Markey and Blumenthal argue that there are vulnerabilities connected to these vehicles, such as the possibility of outside hackers collecting sensitive personal information.

But again and again, hackers have proven that the government is ineffective at securing its own networks. Why should it be better at securing others’? Unlike the government, the private sector has a direct interest in cybersecurity because data breaches can put the whole enterprise in jeopardy, while government agencies still remain (and, indeed, grow) after their security failures.

Within the next decade there will be a groundbreaking shake up in the automobile market. We should embrace the imminent improvements to transportation and push back against counterproductive government meddling that will only serve to forestall the implementation of this innovative and lifesaving technology.

In the end, holiday travelers will appreciate autonomous cars that are actually autonomous. As you sit in traffic on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, remember that things could be very different in only a few short years. Innovation could be driving us in a whole new, and better, direction, but only if we can keep regulators in the backseat.

  • Eric Lieberman is a Young Voices Advocate, public policy researcher with an emphasis in technology policy, and writer based in Washington, DC.