July 22, 2024

Economic View: Can I See Your License, Registration and C.P.U.?

Inescapably, computers will be playing an ever larger role in our lives. But exactly what tasks will they be allowed to perform, and how will we use government regulation to evaluate the risks associated with new technologies? These questions will be increasingly pressing as innovations strain the longstanding rules that regulate modern life.

Consider one potentially important technology, the driverless car. The idea is simple: a computer drives the car for you, based on input from the surrounding environment. Putting a computer behind the wheel may sound scary, but in road tests performed by Google and other companies, the cars have had a good safety record.

The benefits of driverless cars are potentially significant. The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably. Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.

The point is not that such cars could be on the road in large numbers tomorrow, but that we ought to give the cars — and other potential innovations — a fair shot so that a prototype can become a commercial product someday. Michael Mandel, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute, compares government regulation of innovation to the accumulation of pebbles in a stream. At some point too many pebbles block off the water flow, yet no single pebble is to blame for the slowdown. Right now the pebbles are limiting investment in future innovation.

The driverless car is illegal in all 50 states. Google, which has been at the forefront of this particular technology, is asking the Nevada legislature to relax restrictions on the cars so it can test some of them on roads there. Unfortunately, the very necessity for this lobbying is a sign of our ambivalence toward change. Ideally, politicians should be calling for accelerated safety trials and promising to pass liability caps if the cars meet acceptable standards, whether that be sooner or later. Yet no major public figure has taken up this cause.

Enabling the development of driverless cars will require squadrons of lawyers because a variety of state, local and federal laws presume that a human being is operating the automobiles on our roads. No state has anything close to a functioning system to inspect whether the computers in driverless cars are in good working order, much as we routinely test emissions and brake lights. Ordinary laws change only if legislators make those revisions a priority. Yet the mundane political issues of the day often appear quite pressing, not to mention politically safer than enabling a new product that is likely to engender controversy.

Politics, of course, is often geared toward preserving the status quo, which is highly visible, familiar in its risks, and lucrative for companies already making a profit from it. Some parts of government do foster innovation, such as Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is part of the Defense Department. Darpa helped create the Internet and is supporting the development of the driverless car. It operates largely outside the public eye; the real problems come when its innovations start to enter everyday life and meet political resistance and disturbing press reports.

About 40,000 Americans die each year in car accidents. Would driverless cars reduce this toll? We’ll need further tests and development to know for sure. But the way things stand now, we may never get the chance to find out.

Consider this thought experiment. Assume that driverless cars could certainly reduce deaths by avoiding accidents caused by people who drive while intoxicated or who simply make stupid driving decisions, like driving on the wrong side of the road. Add in the likelihood that even after they are perfected and well inspected, driverless cars would lead to special problems, perhaps if the computers don’t respond properly to some unusual situations.

To continue this experiment, imagine that the cars would save many lives over all, but lead to some bad accidents when a car malfunctions. The evening news might show a “Terminator” car spinning out of control and killing a child. There could be demands to shut down the cars until just about every problem is solved. The lives saved by the cars would not be as visible as the lives lost, and therefore the law might thwart or delay what could be a very beneficial innovation.

Furthermore, a company with deep pockets might be reluctant to take on the legal liability associated with selling driverless cars and in the meantime wouldn’t invest heavily to improve the technology.

IN the meantime, transportation is one area where progress has been slow for decades. We’re still flying 747s, a plane designed in the 1960s. Many rail and bus networks have contracted. And traffic congestion is worse than ever. As I’ argued in a previous column, this is probably part of a broader slowdown of technological advances.

But it’s clear that in the early part of the 20th century, the original advent of the motor car was not impeded by anything like the current mélange of regulations, laws and lawsuits. Potentially major innovations need a path forward, through the current thicket of restrictions. That debate on this issue is so quiet shows the urgency of doing something now.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2ac961b916cfe4419a3ea86fc5d56016

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