Race On, for Driverless Cars
On the beauty of putting the consumer in the driver’s seat

Google's driverless car


Kevin D. Williamson

Google this week unveiled the latest iteration of its driverless-car experiment, a prototype vehicle with no steering wheel or brake pedal. Reactions came in three main modes: terror, in the case of traditional automobile manufacturers; gee-whiz enthusiasm among nerds such as yours truly; and, most important, withering criticism from assorted design and automotive critics, who denounced the vehicles’ 1998-iMac-on-wheels aesthetic as too cute by a (driverless) mile, an Edsel as reimagined by Jony Ive. Every wonder that comes (in this case literally) down the pike is met with a measure of scorn by various aficionados and sundry mavens, who are annoying but who also are, regardless of whether they intend or realize it, champions of civilization. The iterative, evolutionary process of product design and refinement is the main engine of progress in material standards of living on this planet, and every condescending, self-righteous snob who pronounces every innovation not quite good enough is making humanity better off.

The Google driverless car may turn out to be the iPod of the automotive world, or it may fail. It may be the case that another firm (though I would not bet on General Motors) will produce a better version; it is more likely that, as with traditional cars, dozens of firms will offer scores of competing products, each serving a different need or taste. It may be the case that the most economically consequential application of the technology is moving cargo rather than people.  Or maybe people won’t like them; you never can tell. What is important is that the evolutionary process be allowed to play out with a minimum of political interference.

Don’t bet on that happening. Around the world, the government-charted monopolies and cartels that run the taxi business responded with protests and violence to the emergence of technology-empowered competitors such as Uber, which does not undercut traditional taxis on cost — in New York, its drivers earn about three times what a traditional cabbie makes — but is much more convenient for those who do not live or work in areas that are generally well-served by traditional taxis. As in most cities, New York law imposes price uniformity on taxis and long protected them from most competition, with the entirely predictable result that consumers are the worst-served parties in the taxi business. (It does not help matters that, unlike their London counterparts, famously steeped in “the Knowledge,” the typical New York cabbie cannot find the Brooklyn Bridge without GPS or turn-by-turn instructions from the passenger.) The lack of consumer focus has some perverse consequences here in New York: The taxi fleet schedules its shift change from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., meaning that taxis all but vanish from the streets during the hours when they are most needed. The New York Times calls this an “apparent violation of the laws of supply and demand,” which, New York Times geniuses, is exactly what happens when you use regulation to take supply and demand effectively out of the equation. A platform that combined Uber’s on-demand service with Google-style driverless cars would probably put the traditional taxi out of business — assuming that the cartels are not able to use government to strangle innovation in its cradle.

There is not much in the work of Matt Yglesias that has me nodding in even occasional agreement, but it seems to me undeniable that our cities are a mess, from New York to Houston to Los Angeles. As my recent exploration of northeastern traffic congestion demonstrated, traffic is a nightmare. (Don’t get me started on San Pedro to LAX.) As Mr. Yglesias has argued, no small amount of this is regulatory failure in the form of overly restrictive zoning laws, along with political malinvestment, the wishful thinking that holds that we can simply pave our way out of traffic jams. I am always perplexed that it never occurs to our progressive friends, whose adoration of public-works projects borders on the religious, that the proximate cause of the suburban and exurban sprawl they deplore is the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and similar programs that all but guarantee sprawl by subsidizing it, one of the few things I don’t like about Ike. If you want to see the failure of central planning in the American context, drive through any U.S. city in which the interstate highway acts as a socioeconomic Berlin Wall when it is not serving as a parking lot for people who would rather not be parked.

Our problems already are baked into the highway cake, but driverless cars and other innovations offer the possibility of mitigating some of those problems, as well as opening up the possibility that mass transit need not be public transit — e.g., driverless buses that adopt their routes according to the desires of consumers rather than in response to mandates from political appointees and unaccountable bureaucracies, networks of intelligent airport shuttles that interact with online travel retailers, etc.

But every advancement threatens an incumbent interest group, and the problem of concentrated benefits vs. dispersed costs makes it inevitable that potentially radical improvements in our quality of living have to jump through ridiculous political hoops. When somebody wants to offer an alternative to New York’s taxi monopoly, the answer from the city should be, “Yes, please. Thank you!” Not, “What’s it in for us?” Things will only get better if we let them get better. I’m not very dewy-eyed about Google or any other business, but they have to compete — they do not have the power to command revenue the way politicians do. Perversely, those in so-called public-service jobs are the least interested in providing service to the public; why should they serve the public when they can command it? This leads to a world that is economically and morally upside-down. To my friends in Washington who believe themselves to be at the center of the universe — who cannot imagine a car in which they are not metaphorically behind the wheel — I recommend a month’s stay in Silicon Valley, maybe a visit to the Googleplex. As the joke goes, California makes technology, Texas makes energy, Iowa makes food, and Washington makes it difficult.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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