Waymo made history on Tuesday, announcing that fully self-driving cars — with no one sitting behind the wheel — are roaming public roads near the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. It’s happening way sooner than I expected it to.
back in 2010, I made a bet with them A sociologistRyan Avent. He has a young daughter and mused on Twitter that he might not need a driver’s license because self-driving cars might be commonplace by the time he turns 16 in 2026. I doubt it. I certainly look forward to self-driving cars hitting American roads corruptbut I think it won’t happen until 2026.
So we make a bet. I haven’t officially lost the bet yet because the bet focuses on the trip from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. But it looks like Waymo will expand to the East Coast long before 2026, and I’ll have to pay.
My biggest mistake was thinking that, even if the technology is ready by the early 2020s, legal restrictions will stop your business exposure. “The policy debate will not begin in earnest until the design of self-driving cars begins to demonstrate similar safety records to human-powered vehicles,” I wrote. “And thenin the best case, there will be many years of foot-dragging by policymakers.”
I was completely wrong. Instead, regulators—at the federal level and in some states, especially Arizona—have pushed back to embrace self-driving car technology.
“I think there’s going to be more of a recession than we’re seeing,” said Caleb Watney, a policy analyst at the free-market think tank R Street Institute.
Normally, we think of Republicans as those who push for a hands-off approach to technology. And it’s true that Republicans are in power both in Washington and in Phoenix. But that doesn’t explain the breadth of political consensus in favor of electric regulation of self-driving cars. Auto safety regulators under Donald Trump have largely followed the path taken by Obama-era predecessors. Legislation to reduce regulatory barriers to self-driving cars passed the House of Representatives in a unanimous vote in September.
Why do policymakers embrace self-driving cars?
A big reason I expect personal cars to face regulatory roadblocks is that regulators typically have strong political incentives to be careful. If you run an agency that approves a product that becomes dangerous, you will likely face a lot of bad press and may lose your job. Regulators are unlikely to face blame for delaying the introduction of a product that could be allowed because the families of those who may have saved their lives may not even know about it.
But self-driving cars are much higher profile than a typical drug or medical device. Advocates have been effective in convincing the public and policy makers that self-driving cars have the potential to save lives.
As those lawyers have pointed out endlessly in recent years, human-operated vehicles kill around 30,000 people a year, with 94 percent of those deaths being due to human error. It seems that self-driving cars could prevent most of those deaths. Which means, as Watney said, “every day we don’t have driverless cars is another 90 to 100 people who could die.”
That’s the argument of this many policymakers. Alphabet’s massive lobbying and major auto companies helped, too. Alphabet, the parent company of Google and Waymo, spent $13 million on lobbying already in 2017, ranking seventh among all groups for lobbying spending (though most of that was likely on non-automotive issues ). Major automakers like GM, Ford, and Toyota have each spent millions on lobbying this year as well.
At the state level, competition between states has pushed things in the direction of governance. Uber and its ride-hailing subsidiary Otto have clashed with state regulators in Nevada and California. Today, the company does most of its testing in the Phoenix area, where Arizona law draws distinctions between custom and personal vehicles.
Waymo believes it is in compliance with existing government regulations
Another important factor is that auto-safety regulators have a tradition of being indifferent to the car industry. Agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration require companies to seek pre-market approval for their products. In contrast, the approach of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is to be organized general instructions requiring features such as airbags and antilock brakes and then asking professionals to self-certify their compliance. NHTSA then relies on after-market recalls to address vehicles that turn out to be defective.
This method creates a slightly greater risk of defective products reaching the market. But it also allows automakers to get life-saving innovations into the market more quickly. And the car makers are big, government agencies with strong incentives to color inside the lines, so there’s not much reason to worry about the small, fly-by-night manufacturers that are steal defective products into the market.
Waymo’s approach to navigating federal safety standards is to build on a vehicle—Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan—that is supposed to comply with applicable safety standards. This may be one reason Waymo has backed away from trying to remove the pedals and steering wheel from its cars. Doing that would require changing federal safety standards, while Waymo believes that leaving them in place — and not letting consumers touch them — would allow the vehicles to go to market without the need to adjust government regulations.
Some consumer groups would like to see more exposure
Tech companies have “held up a silver bullet for the second cause of accidental death in this country,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a group founded by safety crusaders. auto Ralph Nader. . “If all we need to do is not fix it, then sure, where do I sign up. That’s the wind in the wind.”
But Levine argues that Waymo hasn’t done enough to truly demonstrate to regulators and the public that its cars are safer than conventionally driven cars.
Waymo has conducted significant testing of its vehicles, but has released only fragmentary information about the results of that testing. Waymo is required to submit information about departures—the conditions in which drivers must take them—once a year in California. But no similar program exists in Arizona. So citizens have no easy way to know how many miles vehicles have driven in the state and what problems they may have had.
“We need ‘waymo’ information,” said Henry Jasny, an attorney at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Last month, Waymo filed a 43-page report with federal regulators detailing its security features. Jasny was not impressed. “This is essentially a marketing brochure,” he told Ars.
Jasny argued that Waymo and self-driving car makers should release enough technical details to allow independent experts to examine the companies’ work and flag potential problems. Providing these types of information to regulators would also be valuable, Jasny said, because it would allow workers to better prepare in the event of a crash or other safety problem.
“We would like to release their test data, at least in an aggregated way, so that everyone can have an idea of some comparisons” between different technologies, Jasny said.