A recent report from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) predicts that 75 percent of vehicles on the road will be driverless by 2040. If this sounds like science fiction, have a look at the video below that features Google’s driverless car.
Driverless cars could significantly reduce gridlock and traffic accidents. But while the technology may be road ready in the near future, there are a number of significant barries to widespread adoption.
First, there vested interest will oppose them at every turn. Widespread adoption of driverless cars would decimate the taxi industry. As Matt Yglesias points out, the legal hurdles faced by car services attempting to compete with taxi companies suggest that the taxi industry won’t allow driverless cars without a fight.
Second, liability issues will need to be sorted out. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers opposes the California bill that would legalize driverless cars because they believe it does not adequately shield auto manufacturers from liability. Removing control of vehicles from drivers shifts responsibility for collisions to manufacturers. This could be a significant barrier. If auto manufacturers oppose legislation to legalize driverless cars, they most certainly will not build them.
Third, even if the technology is sound, there will be psychological barriers to adoption. Many people will fear the prospect of glitches in the technology causing collisions. The first time a driverless car causes a fatal technology there will be massive pushback. California’s attempt to legalize driverless cars provides an example of how irrational fears will hamper the technology. The legislation being advanced requires a licensed driver to be in the car at all times. While one might view this as a practical way to alleviate public skepticism as driverless cars enter the market, it can also be viewed as the first of many many overzealous regulations to come.
The fourth, and in my opinion, the most valid concern, is over privacy. Privacy advocates Consumer Watchdog are urging California Governor Jerry Brown to veto the proposed legislation, claiming it does not contain strong enough measures to safeguard privacy. Their two substantive objections are:
First, Google’s entire business model is based on building digital dossiers about our personal behavior and using them to sell the most personal advertising to us. You’re not Google’s customer; you are its product – the one it sells to corporations willing to pay any price to reach you. Will the driverless technology be just about getting us from point to point or about tracking how we got there and what we did along the way?
Second, computer engineers, who believe that more data is always better, are in charge at Google. They may not know what they would use data for today, but they think they may someday find a use for it and don’t want any restrictions on them now.
Moreover, they point to various examples where they claim Google has misused private information and breached people’s privacy. This highlights the need for strong privacy protections.
While there are potential benefits to legalization and widespread adoption of driverless cars, there are some legitimate concerns to be addressed. But it wouldn’t be surprising if lobbyists kept the technology at bay out of their own self interest. It wouldn’t be the first time that politics trumped public policy.