A Mindless Attack on Driverless Cars

by Neil H. Buchanan

At the end of a truly horrible year, any reason to avoid thinking about American politics is welcome.  For those of us who are public policy junkies, however, it is difficult to find topics that do not somehow eventually circle back around to our broken political system.  Happily, The New York Times recently gave us the gift of a truly terrible op-ed.

When I say that the op-ed in question is terrible, however, I mean that in the most fun sense possible.  There have always been bad op-eds, and some of them advance truly dangerous views.  Some, however, are so poorly reasoned that they are actually entertaining and even paradoxically thought-provoking.  And thus we have "Google Wants Driverless Cars, but Do We?"

The op-ed attacks driverless cars, or government support for driverless cars, or in any event something about driverless cars.  The author is identified as a lawyer who works for an automobile-oriented publication.  I know nothing about the author or her/his publication, so I approached the piece without expectations high or low (other than its having been published in The Times, which is hardly a guarantee of quality).

Moreover, I should emphasize that I welcome contrarian op-ed pieces.  Although I have been generally excited about the prospect of driverless cars, it is certainly true that there might be hidden costs or unexamined problems in this emerging technology.  We once thought that corn-based automotive fuel, aluminum siding, and Google Glasses were good ideas.  Skepticism is always in order.

But what The Times published was simply amusing in its emptiness.  We are first told that public policy has been favoring the development of driverless cars, "[a]nd yet this trend has never been voted on or discussed seriously by our politicians."  It is not clear how we would vote on any of this, but perhaps the idea is that people are not being skeptical enough about the technology.  The author offers no evidence that legislators and regulators have been failing to seriously and critically discuss the technology, but we can at least imagine that more discussion might be helpful.

What should we discuss?  The column begins with the complaint that the country's leaders seem to be flashing "a giant green light for an industry and the multitrillion-dollar investment it will represent, the cost largely to be borne by consumers and government," and it ends by asking: "Shouldn’t society have a say in what amounts to a public works project larger than the Interstate System of highways — run by and for private industry, but underwritten by taxpayers?"

Apparently, then, the central concern is that private companies are going to benefit from spending by consumers and the government.  I am the last person on Earth who would want to red-bait anyone, but I have to ask whether this author understands how capitalism works.  The point of every business is to succeed by offering products that consumers buy.  Even the most basic understanding of business starts with the idea that sellers need buyers.

But maybe the real complaint was about the government's role, not consumers'.  Why should the government spend money to do something that will ultimately make money for corporations?  This is the concern that motivates populist attacks on "corporate welfare," from the left and the right.  While it is certainly possible for politicians to engage in corrupt diversion of public funds, however, it is utter nonsense to suggest that the government should not be spending money on things that will lead to increased business profits.

Consider the interstate highways.  Trillions of dollars of public money have been spent on that formerly world-class system of roads, and who benefited?  Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, not to mention foreign auto companies (many of whom produce cars in the U.S.) and some defunct companies that made money in their day.  What about Liberty Mutual, State Farm, and GEICO, all of whom make money from insuring the drivers and cars that fill the government's roads?

And let us not forget about ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the other oil companies that produce the fuel for those cars.  Or the steel companies, the tire companies, the auto glass companies, and the after-market auto parts companies.  We have also spent trillions of dollars on airports, only to see those nasty companies like United Airlines and Boeing make money off of the government and its citizens.

Indeed, any time the government does anything to invest in the economy -- or even when it merely performs its basic tasks of fighting crime, enforcing contracts, protecting private property, and so on -- private parties benefit.  That is the point of public investment, because we are hoping that the government's spending can set the stage for mutually beneficial exchanges between businesses and consumers.

In other words, the simple assertion that Google and other companies will benefit from government spending on tech-ready highways and related investments means nothing.  The internet itself was created by researchers (many working at state universities) using government grants, and now look how many companies are making money!

To try to bend over backward to find some value in the op-ed, however, maybe we should say that these false populist appeals were mere rhetorical excess.  Is the real concern that there are legitimate questions about the costs and benefits of driverless technology?

The author tries but fails to raise meaningful red flags.  Easily the worst argument is that driverless cars will be dangerous, because "[w]hen 1,700 people leave the New Jersey Turnpike at more or less the same moment, all headed for the same parking spot near the food court at the Vince Lombardi rest area, you don’t want to be there."  I have been there with people who are driving their own cars, and I do not want to be there again.

Driverless technology is, in fact, designed in large part to prevent the cascades of events that lead to exactly those types of pileups.  Following distances will be shortened, and the cars will be able to merge into exit lanes much more smoothly than is possible under current technology.  If too many cars want to do the same thing at the same time, at least they will not be driven by people who angrily try to cut off other drivers and block lanes.  And Google cars won't rubberneck.

The closest thing to a novel argument in the op-ed is the claim that there will be problems during the transition period when both driverless and traditional cars and trucks are on the same roads together.  "One of the claims made for autonomous cars is that they can be lighter, shedding heavy metal crash cells and expensive safety gear, like airbags, saving fuel. That’s great until the old-school pickup with the old-fashioned drunken driver T-bones your Google car."

It is not at all obvious that this would be worse on net than the current technology, but even if it is, the sensible conclusion is that cars and trucks will be designed and redesigned as evolving realities dictate.  We would not expect any driverless car manufacturer to design the same cars in 2020 as it will in 2030 or 2050.  As long as airbags are still needed, cars will include airbags (because the government, after serious discussions, can continue to mandate them).

I actually agree with the author that we should not view driverless cars as an alternative to public transportation, which means that we should still worry about increasing government funding for passenger rail and urban mass transit.  There might be a point at which those funding needs conflict, but right now we are talking about allowing and encouraging the technological advances that will make private transit safer, more economical, and better for the environment.  If that requires some public spending, I am all for it.

Of course, none of this should happen until the technology is ready.  It would be foolish to allow any technology to be available to the public without knowing that it is safe, but there is no evidence of a rush to put unsafe vehicles on the roads.  I am only partially willing to rely on companies' concerns about their reputations, but it seems clear that the companies pushing forward on driverless technology are keenly aware that the public will hold them to very high standards.

For example, even though airplane travel has long been much, much safer than auto travel, the media and the public snap to attention when a plane crashes.  Somehow, tens of thousands of deaths on the roads every year are not the same in the public mind as the dozens or hundreds of people who die in the thankfully rare downing of a commercial jet.  Similarly, the press will jump on every example of a person being killed in a driverless car.  Companies that want to make money on this new technology know that they are going to be held to different standards.

None of this is to say that politicians and regulators should simply let the companies write the rules.  Of course the companies will "balk at regulation," as the op-ed's author reports.  There is always a need for public policy to constrain the excesses and arrogance of people (an especially plentiful breed in Silicon Valley) who view themselves as the geniuses who will save humanity.  But again, vague assertions that politicians seem excited about driverless technology are hardly proof that they are going to roll over and allow Google to sell cars that are too light for current conditions.

Perhaps I am so willing to defend driverless cars because I recently experienced one of the textbook examples of the dangers of current cars: My car collided with a car that was moving through my blind spot.  Thankfully, neither of us were hurt, but the cars sustained a few thousand dollars worth of damage.  When driverless technology is ready, blind spots will no longer be a threat to public health.

When that day comes, as the author of the Times op-ed argues, some people's jobs will become obsolete.  We will need fewer auto body shops, fewer taxi drivers, and probably fewer automobile workers.  On the other hand, we also hire fewer ice truck deliverymen than we did a hundred years ago, and I cannot remember the last time I saw someone getting a high-paying job as a Betamax repair technician.

All of this merely means that the obvious and overwhelming prospective benefits of driverless cars will come with transition costs.  Luckily, the time necessary to develop the technology can also be used to plan the transition.

As unrelenting as my attack on this particular op-ed might have been, I have to end this column by repeating my initial comment that it is a relief to be able to write about something that is an important public policy issue but that does not have any obvious connection to the imminent death of constitutional democracy.

There are smart, motivated people who are making driverless technology inevitable.  Important questions need to be posed and answered along the way.  One mindless op-ed is not going to change that, but at least it reminds us that even poorly reasoned arguments can sometimes be a pleasant diversion.  Happy new year!