Acton Institute Powerblog

The awesomely boring future of driverless cars

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As fears loom about a future filled with robot overlords, innovation continues to accelerate at breakneck pace. When it comes to self-driving cars, for example, tech companies are making significant strides with the technology, even as the masses continue to fret over a handful of related accidents and the potential for human abuses.

With Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica now accomplishing Level 4 autonomy, just how afraid should we be? Is a world of autonomous cars destined for apocalyptic catastrophe or dystopian indolence?

According to the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix, the reality is far less dramatic. “The near future of driverless cars is likely to be boring,” he writes in the latest National Review. “To spend a day in Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica is to be chauffeured by the most methodical, cautious, and courteous driver on Planet Earth.”

Pioneering among a pack of some 18 competitors, Waymo’s latest entry breaks new ground, and not just in the technology of the product. Thanks to an arrangement with Arizona governor Doug Ducey and mayor Jay Tibshraeny (both Republicans), Chrysler Pacificas are now operational on all public roads within 100 miles of Chandler, AZ, a prosperous suburb of Phoenix.

Despite the widespread fears, Ducey and Tibshraeny have taken a decidedly “hands-off” approach to regulation. Rather than making hasty, preemptive attempts to constrain and regulate their way to “safety” in an emerging industry (in which “safety” is an ultimate goal), they decided to take a different approach: ignore needless rules that might prove stifling and counterproductive, focusing first on what’s already working and where innovation might lead.

Ducey signed an executive order that put regulatory decisions in the hands of state agencies. In turn, Kevin Biesty, the deputy director of policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), has continued with Ducey’s adaptive approach, hosting an oversight committee and ongoing conversations to ensure that risk-aversion doesn’t stifle life-saving innovations.

As Hendrix explains:

That [oversight] body has formally met twice in the past year and suggested only one measure, on autonomous commercial trucking, prompting accusations that the state is asleep at the wheel.

Nonsense, says Biesty. “Believe it or not, there are things that happen outside of these [committee] meetings.” If we let bureaucracy and regulation weigh down this innovation, he argues, we’ll increase the time that these “life-saving technologies” will need to get out on the road. Instead, ADOT has chosen to treat driverless vehicles just like any other automobile. “We have plenty of regulations that direct how a motor vehicle should act on the roadways,” he adds. As long as a car like Waymo’s is registered and insured and operates within current statutes, he argues, it should be allowed to drive on Arizona’s roads.

Rather than legislating based on future fears, “we regulate as actual problems or harms come up,” Biesty says, reflecting Arizona’s permissionless attitude toward innovation. Lawmakers can identify needed regulations or legislation only by letting cars such as Waymo’s loose in the wild and by holding open, ongoing dialogue with the public and companies. This also gives consumers time to ponder knotty questions, such as whether parents should be allowed to send their children alone in a driverless car to their grandparents’ house. In the meantime, says Biesty, “we’re here to facilitate the safe operation of business and commerce and foster an environment where people want to live, work, and play.”

If successful, autonomous cars might be nearer to the average consumer than we think, avoiding the need for “smart roads” and excessive regulation, and expediting cultural acceptance, in turn.

Regardless, the tensions and successes in Chandler illuminate the deeper struggle we face in balancing risk and security in pursuit of technological progress. Indeed, they remind us that how we pursue such advancements matters not only for the success of the advancements themselves, but for the health of the culture in which we’ll enjoy them.

As ongoing modernization continues, we can either pursue a path of risk and struggle and reward, leading us to put life and wellbeing first, no matter how comfortable. Or, we can pursue a path of hyper-security and insulation, however temporary and artificial — leading us to delay a range of innovations and improvements, and subvert and dilute our destinies for more predictable, “comfortable” lives.

The paradox, of course, is that what appears at first to be the riskier move — dwelling in the uncertainty of spontaneous innovation and experimentation — will often lead to a more stable, permanent, and, yes, boring cultural outcome.

In the case of our robo-destiny with driverless cars, the future looks much brighter when risk and freedom take the driver’s seat. Take it from Tibshraeny. “I’m in the middle of it,” he says, “and sometimes I stop and say, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”

Read Hendrix’s full article.

Image: Closer Than We Think (Public Domain)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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