Lawmakers, Let Automakers Innovate

Lawmakers, Let Automakers Innovate
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

Few things are transforming how people travel as much as the ride-sharing industry. Ride-sharing apps allow consumers to get where they need to go for less money, while creating flexible jobs for drivers. One study estimates the economic benefits from cheaper and faster transportation for consumers provided by Uber to be $6.8 billion annually. The rise of ride-sharing has also been tied to dramatic reductions in deaths due to drunk driving, which is why Uber is consistently supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Despite these successes, the government is treating the emergence of ride-sharing as a problem in need of squashing. Some regulations take the form of outright bans on ridesharing, such as in New York, where, until recently, ride-sharing companies were only allowed to operate in New York City, not the rest of the state. More often, regulations undermine ride-sharing in a more subtle way.

In Seattle, for instance, there is an ongoing battle to push ride-sharing drivers towards unionization, despite the fact that this would likely drive up prices, hurt driver flexibility, and go against the wishes of almost all ride-sharing drivers. And in Austin, a city ordinance forced Uber and Lyft to comply with regulations, requiring both companies to utilize a flawed governmental fingerprint background check system. As a result, the companies suspended operations in the city, not returning until over a year later when the state legislature preempted Austin’s ordinance. 

Self-driving cars appear to be next on the regulatory chopping block. Autonomous vehicles offer the potential to substantially reduce the approximately 30,000 deaths and 2.4 million injuries from car crashes annually. One estimate places potential annual benefits of transitioning to self-driving cars at $642 billion. That estimate may even be conservative, as it leaves out other potential advantages of autonomous vehicle technology, such as increased transportation options for the elderly and disabled. According to another estimate, self-driving cars have the potential to reduce traffic fatalities by as much as 90 percent. Given that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that approximately 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error, that does not seem unrealistic.

You would think that with such massive potential benefits, governments would do everything they can to stay out of the way. Instead, states are rapidly assembling a patchwork of regulations surrounding autonomous vehicles, which could create a hostile environment for innovation. Fortunately, though, relief may be on the way in the form of the bipartisan SELF DRIVE Act, which would preempt state and local regulations and allow innovators to continue to develop autonomous vehicles with limited unnecessary interference.

Government meddling in the realm of autonomous vehicles is not limited to over-regulation. Consumer privacy could also be put in a perilous situation if government agencies force automakers and ride-sharing companies to share data.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied the privacy policies of 13 producers of autonomous cars and found that all of them explicitly obtain consumer consent before collecting data. While these data can be  for avoiding congested traffic and ensuring safety, in the wrong hands, they could be devastating to privacy and safety. The Energy and Commerce Committee is promising that the SELF DRIVE Act will protect user data. But while government may claim to be looking out for consumer privacy, there are also dangers with allowing the government to impede on that privacy.

For instance, thanks to the alleged risks of self-driving cars, governments at various levels have expressed interest in obtaining driver-related data under the guise of making roads safer. For example, lawmakers in New York are currently studying the use of a device known as the “Textalyzer.” The tablet-like tool plugs into phones and gives law enforcement unprecedented access to drivers’ private activities, including texting, use of apps, or phone calls made. It is noteworthy — if not comforting — that other high-tech industries have shown a relative willingness to turn over user data when the government compels them to do so. From January to June 2015, Apple turned over data 81 percent of the time law enforcement asked; Facebook did so 80 percent of the time; and Google 78 percent of the time. Microsoft was slightly more reluctant, only forking over data 66 percent of the time. 

If officials really want to protect consumer safety and the economy, they’d be wise to leave innovation and data collection to the automakers. Not only would this make America’s roads safer and Americans’ wallets fatter, it would ensure that civil liberties are not trampled on in the process.

Andrew Wilford is an Advocate for Young Voices and an Associate Policy Analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @PolicyWilford. Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.

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