The Long Road to Self-Driving Cars

California regulators step on automotive innovation.

Maybe it’s just the new “Star Wars” movie intensifying that weird mix of nostalgia and day-dreaming that the best science fiction produces, but: We’re still waiting on our flying cars, damn it.

And California is getting in the way.

Not in the way of flying cars, to be precise — the FAA has just approved test flights by Terrafugia’s prototype — but in the way of the slightly more pedestrian but potentially much more significant self-driving automobiles. California regulators have drafted new rules for partly autonomous cars (the ones that can, for example, take over for you while driving on the freeway) and they’re about what you would expect: sundry safety-certification processes and big fat fees paid to the state. But the rules do not regulate fully autonomous cars: They ban them outright.

California is for various reasons a regulatory bellwether on matters of automotive regulation, but don’t expect the other 49 states to follow along on this one. Bryant Walker Smith, an academic who studies autonomous cars, tells Wired that California’s move is “great news for Texas.” Google already has turned to Texas as a testing-ground for its vehicles. Why? “Austin has always been extremely welcoming to Google and to innovation of all kinds,” the company said in a press release.

(I’d love to tell you a great deal more about Google’s autonomous-car project, but, so far, the company has categorically refused to consent to so much as an interview with me on the subject. I find this perplexing.)

RELATED: The Next Big Thing the Left Want to Ban: Human Drivers

When we talk about the benefits of autonomous cars, the conversation often focuses on the individual level: They will be less prone to error than the typical driver is, and they don’t get drunk or put on makeup or fire up the ol’ crack pipe on the Schuylkill Expressway as one young well-dressed commuter in a new Passat did next to me early one morning on my way into Philadelphia. But the real promise of autonomous driving lies in network effects: Imagine how Los Angeles or Houston might be changed if every car on the road were aware not only of its own position and destination but also the position and destination of every other car on the road, with the network serving as a sort of Leplace’s Demon for traffic. With a well-designed network (Google knows a little something about that) we could go from directing commuters away from traffic jams to simply routing them in such a way that traffic never gets snarled up in the first place. This would represent an enormous quality-of-life improvement in traffic-choked cities such as Austin and Washington.

It could also revolutionize the delivery of goods, particularly last-mile delivery to commercial establishments in dense urban areas. (In places such as Manhattan, where individual vehicle ownership is relatively low, a great deal of traffic trouble is caused by trucks servicing businesses.) Distribution costs represent a very large share of the costs of many products, including one dear to my own heart: daily newspapers.

#share#No doubt many people (myself included) will continue to drive for pleasure. People still ride horses for pleasure, too, but we don’t deliver the mail that way. New technological models will produce new economic models. Commuting very likely will be transformed from an investment in equipment to a subscription service.

This will dispossess big, powerful chunks of entrenched economic interests, not just the big automakers (which are every year falling behind innovations from the likes of Tesla and probably won’t be able to keep up with Google or Apple) but also the Teamsters and similar unions, the taxi cartels that have been given fits by Uber and Lyft and don’t have what it takes to compete against robots, the employees and management of mass-transit systems that could be rendered obsolete in a matter of only a few years, and others. These guys have some clout: At the moment, the National Auto Dealers Association is the 66th largest political contributor in the United States, and the Teamsters are the 53rd largest; the National Rifle Association, by way of comparison, is way down at No. 290.

The persistent terror of technological innovation is simply the fear of technological change itself.

Just as the fear of economic freedom is rooted in fear of freedom itself, the persistent terror of technological innovation is simply the fear of technological change itself. Because the people who are most afraid of technology tend to be those who know the least about it, this often has some humorous consequences: We’re still hearing from people who are bothered about numbered Swiss bank accounts when the real hot action is in encrypted Swiss e-mail accounts. We’re still talking about conventional wire-tapping when anybody with a couple of hundred bucks can get himself an encrypted mobile phone that bypasses the public telephone switches entirely by using an Internet connection.

As the Golden State’s 38th governor once put it, the future was invented in California. (And, being from the future, he would know.) There’s a reason that those desolate planets visited by Kirk and Spock look a great deal like Los Angeles County. And the future is still coming. The question for California — and for the rest of the country — is: Is it coming here?

In Washington, home to the nation’s worst commute, drivers spend an average of 82 hours a year sitting in traffic. All those social engineers and central planners have a lot of time to sit and think about how to mitigate that problem. They’re sitting, and sitting, and sitting.

Are they thinking?

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