Is America Too 'Safe' for Innovation? Or Will Driverless Cars Ever Have Their Day?
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The year is 2025 and you’re watching Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. After skewering the U.S. Department of Education for banning processed sugars from public school lunchrooms, Colbert ends the segment before a commercial break.
In the first commercial, the Geico gecko and Flo from Progressive are arguing about how much money a person could save on car insurance. The gecko and Flo turn toward the camera, their eyes open wide with fear as a car screeches to a halt. The new Tesla “Model Z” stops before them.
As the camera zooms closer, it's apparent that no driver is in the front seat. The gecko and Flo look at each other, at the car and then step out of the way. The Model Z zooms by, and its rear license plate is etched with the Google triangle logo.
Warren Buffett's vision. This could be the future for some popular insurance-commercial characters -- at least, according to Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns Geico. Indeed, Google wants its self-driving cars on the road in five years.
“That is a real threat to the auto insurance industry," Warren Buffett declared at Berkshire Hathaway’s recent annual meeting. Yet, if self-driving cars "prove successful and reduce accidents dramatically, it will be very good for society and very bad for auto insurers,” he observed.
As usual, Buffett was spot-on: The innovation of self-driving cars could redistribute money from a $199 billion U.S. car-insurance industry to technologists who could make auto accidents history. In the U.S. alone, self-driving cars could eliminate the more than 33,000 motor-vehicle traffic deaths a year, 2.3 million injuries and billions in car damage.
Technological advances in the automotive industry are increasing at a rapid pace. Today, some cars can park themselves, vibrate the driver's seat when a vehicle drifts from a lane and even monitor eyes to ensure motorists are focused on the road. At the same time, other new technologies are distracting drivers: New heads-up displays can show a smartphone screen on a windshield.
The development of driverless cars could lead to one of the greatest economic shifts in U.S. history but it would be shortsighted to focus on only the commercial impact. Whatever the potential safety advantages of removing human drivers from the roads, such a move would collide headlong with the agenda of institutions advocating liberty, choice and property rights.
Government policy eyed. Will the U.S. government move to ban driving to prevent 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries a year? Or will lobbying organizations form to resist a driverless society and stand up for the rights of motor enthusiasts?
This raises a central question: Will American politicians be so concerned with their political safety that they attempt to kill the innovation of driverless cars?
I predict that the development of driverless technology will provoke a debate as legally and morally heated as the current one over gun rights.
U.S. laws about firearms emerged during an era when they served as both military weapons and as tools to procure sustenance for families. Gun legislation has become controversial lately because the significance of firearms has changed. While millions of firearms are used responsibly for sport, millions are also used for violent crimes.
But if technologists have their way, the self-driven automobile would soon become a relic -- from a time when driving was as integral to individuals' pursuit of their livelihoods (much as the gun was in the 18th century).
Many critics point to the security risks, however, of having an entire country run on driverless technology. Imagine if terrorists managed to hack the software behind driverless cars. Could they set up a horrifically violent attack?
So when discussion of driverless cars reaches its climax -- perhaps within the next decade -- all political hell is going to break loose.
This driverless-car debate is not a controversy between red and blue sides. This is a controversy between innovation and political equilibrium. Should certain innovations be discouraged to preserve stability? Should Americans be protected from change in the name of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Or should innovation be promoted regardless of the consequences, since ultimately it will produce political disruptions that lead to a better society?
Safety at issue. From the perspective of health and safety advocates, banning driving is a very wise choice. For a politician, however, opting for a ban on driving right now might prove very risky if re-election is a priority. Clearly safety depends on one's perspective.
Some fear that innovation could impel a society to become more authoritarian. True, the archetypal Orwellian society would occur only with technologies allowing for constant surveillance. Yet history is filled with highly authoritarian and abusive regimes that didn’t need sophisticated technology.
The day-to-day methods of the surveillance state suggested in 1984 or V for Vendetta rely on innovations. But the nature of such regimes is distinct from the technologies used to enforce submission. Innovation is what humans do best: Democratic and dictatorial regimes will create novel solutions for their respective problems.
In time, probably the insurance industry and the general public will conclude that the need for safety is paramount and that driving one's own car should be illegal. That will be a vote for innovation but a loss for individualism.
Change on the menu. Some of the foods we eat and ingredients in beverages may also be declared illegal. The innovation path of driverless cars won't be stopped because the majority of companies will jump behind the technology.
Just imagine all the publishers, entertainment and social-media companies that would love travelers to be consuming instead of driving. During a four-hour drive from New York to Boston, who wouldn’t want Netflix running in the car? And what if marketers could target passengers based on the type of content they consume and geolocation and then suggest a nearby store where they could purchase the goods at a discount?
I don’t have perfect answers to the driverless-car debate, the gun controversy or the sugary-foods dispute. As I recently wrote, I do believe that technology defines the human species. I have faith that innovative societies can produce solutions that satisfy the legal and moral complications of these problems. This will take reasoned debate -- which today is the true deficit of the U.S. political system.
The development of guns that fire for only one owner is a sign that innovators are trying to resolve the problem of gun violence, even though support for this solution has been lacking on all sides.
This country will find a balance between technology and safety. Americans will develop great technology without sacrificing their freedoms. As the gecko and Flo step aside, innovation will write the next chapter in human history. Have faith that it will be better than the previous chapters, even if it is driverless and sugar-free.
Related: Why We Need Another Sputnik Moment
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