The U.S. government is prepared to treat artificial intelligence in Google's "self-driving" car as a legal "driver," likely clearing a major obstacle on the way to reinventing transportation as we know it. Unfortunately, as they race to catch up with the automotive and tech industries, regulators may end up sending American mobility backwards, not forwards.
Driverless cars have the potential to virtually eliminate collisions, give mobility to millions of disabled and elderly Americans and improve efficiency while promoting new technologies. By redefining what constitutes a "driver," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is taking the first step towards removing the legal barriers preventing companies from letting these cars roll themselves out.
And while questions remain (Do we insure the virtual "driver"? Who is held liable in an accident?), NHTSA's initial declaration is an example of the bold thinking required to drive the conversation forward.
In an ironic twist of fate, Google's home state of California has taken a backseat.
In addition to the federal government, 30 states are enacting or working on rules to govern the use of driverless vehicles. California is the farthest along, and its Department of Motor Vehicles recently released draft rules which, among other things, require that all vehicles on the road have a functioning steering wheel and a licensed human driver at the helm.
California is the tech industry's home. The state's policies often reach all the way to D.C. Its slow-lane approach to driverless vehicles is a severe mistake for two reasons.
First, California's regulations cancel out any advantage driverless vehicles would have over conventional cars, taxis and ridesharing services, squandering the technology's benefits, especially for the elderly and disabled. There are 49 million disabled Americans, of whom 24 million are severely disabled. Two million disabled persons never leave their homes, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities. The story is similar for America's elderly. According to the recent National Household Transportation Survey, individuals in their sixties travel an average of 27 miles a day. By the time they reach their 70s, they travel 32 percent less, and 57 percent less in their 80s. Many of these individuals would travel more, but they lack the ability to do so.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that California's over-regulation neglects the fundamental reason that Google wants to ditch the human driver: A driverless car is safer without an error-prone person at the wheel.
As John Stossel recently pointed out in his Tech Revolution episode, California's regulations are built around the archaic idea that it is always safest to let a human driver take over when it counts. This assumption is not supported by the facts. Research shows that the vast majority of accidents are caused by human error, the type that can be completely eliminated by keeping a person — essentially a non-optimized computer — from panicking and grabbing control from an unflappable machine capable of making thousands of near-bulletproof decisions in the bat of an eye. NHTSA's artificially intelligent "driver" is really just the safety feature of the future — a conscious move to prevent nearly all of the 6 million car collisions and roughly 33,000 deaths that happen on U.S. roads every year.
State officials across America must ask themselves if they want to regulate away the opportunity to improve road safety by up to 90 percent. Unfortunately, at this point California is winning in the backward race to see which state will be the last to let people die daily on its roads — even if those roads are paved with good intentions.
Robbie Diamond is founder, president and CEO of Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE), a nonpartisan organization dedicated to ending the United States' extreme dependence on oil in the transportation sector to bolster American economic and national security. Dr. Mark Goldfeder, Esq. is a senior lecturer at Emory Law School, where among other courses he teaches law and technology. He is also Spruill Family Senior Fellow at Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.