The Ridiculous Thing One Congressman Said About Self-Driving Cars
Economists and others who warn of the business impact of excessive regulations are often derided as Chicken Littles and proto-anarchists who put corporate profit over public safety. I should know, since I'm often on the receiving end of such screeds.
But it isn't Laissez-Fairy-dust dreams that drive such vigilance. Rather, it is people like Rep. Albio Sires.
Last week showed why some regulatory schemes can be downright scary – and need to be killed in the crib.
During the first congressional hearing over autonomous cars, much of the regulatory concern surrounded the issue of liability. In the event of a fender-bender or worse, who is on the hook to pay? It is a legitimate issue for these cars, now being developed by a range of companies, from Google to Daimler-Benz. After all, most regulations come down to who has to pony up cash when a violation occurs. With autonomous, of self-driving, cars, is it the driver (who isn't driving, by the way), the auto manufacturer, or the creator of the SkyNet computer that is behind the wheel?
All good questions, which no doubt will be resolved, and are being handled on a state-by-state basis.
Yet, autonomous cars may crash and burn for other reasons. Here's one: Will driverless cars be so advanced that they will put people out of work?
Yep, that question was actually raised at last week's hearing, by Sires, a New Jersey Democrat. As the Competitive Enterprise Institute points out, Sires is afraid that today's hard-working auto mechanics just won't be up to the job of fixing these darned newfangled things that the kids today are making.
“You’re going to have to send these cars back to the shop,” he said. “I can’t see anybody doing work on these things. I mean, you have to be so sophisticated. And I guess that’s where we’re headed. So can anybody tell me if we’re going to put people out of work?”
There are a number of problems with this view. First, all technology implements change of some kind. The flat-panel television made obsolete the need for someone who knew how to swap out vacuum tubes in the back of your TV. Advances in slot-machine technology went from the mechanical to the digital, requiring a whole new breed of service technicians. Video killed the radio star. Why is it worth any conversation that someone more comfortable to an '80 Malibu be protected against this big, bad menace of a job destroyer?
Second, it fails to understand workplace dynamics and the resilience of the American worker. We adapt pretty well to new technologies, which almost always create, rather than destroy, jobs. Sires need only talk to his mechanic friends in West New York to see this. Cars themselves have become so advanced that the way we fix them has changed dramatically. You don't tinker with an engine anymore. Instead, you do a precision diagnostic check, aided by computers that monitor what works and what doesn't. Rather than put people out of work, it has attracted a whole new breed of auto-repair technicians, less grease monkey than tech junkie. Advances like a self-driven car are an opportunity, not a challenge. Mechanics can and -- if past be prologue – will adapt, and they probably would cringe if you suggested they were somehow not “sophisticated.”
Lastly, and perhaps more scarily, is the idea that regulations, rather than protecting safety, can have different purposes from a policy perspective. Given the horrendous state of employment right now, Congressmen like Sires want to “do something.” So, hey, we're sitting in this hearing, let me throw out the jobs card. The folks back home in Hudson County will love me for it. (One should probably be thankful that, given Hudson County's political-criminal record, Sires didn't inquire whether an autonomous car would be allowed to vote, and how much that vote would cost.) When you throw out a completely unrelated issue like jobs, and suggest you may want that included in whatever laws come out of the hearing, you are adding needless complexity and burden to an issue that may well need some legislative oversight, opinion and guidance. You might as well have asked whether the self-driving technology could be used to save Obamacare.
Autonomous cars, whenever the hell they get here, will be here to stay. And they will benefit the economy in huge ways. Morgan Stanley recently said autonomous cars would create $1.3 trillion in savings to the U.S. economy alone. That amount of money will no doubt trickle down into jobs for people.
There is no evidence that this exciting and disruptive technology will make legions of folks be tossed out of their jobs. All Sires' musings do is ensure that I get to keep mine.
Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.