I absolutely love intersecting public policy with technology trends, and if one thing is clear in my years of covering this it is that public policy reacts rather than anticipates technology advances. Politicians and bureaucrats alike, no matter how well-meaning, rarely take into account the 2nd order consequences of technology innovation, which I define as those consequences that are not obvious but often have a bigger impact than the immediate ones.
Autonomous, also known as driverless, cars present just such a scenario to consider. It’s easy to reflect on the safety implications and how we regulate the human intervention aspects, but let’s go a level deeper and consider what could happen with the single biggest impact on transportation since the invention of the automobile itself.
- Traffic laws: Today’s laws are designed to accommodate distinctly human behavior, such as the fact that roadway speeds are discounted to take into account the fact that people will drive faster than the posted limit. In fact, the legal speed for any public road is the speed which is safe for the conditions. Machines are not bound by the limits of humans and it is reasonable to suggest that posted speed limits should be eliminated in favor of a network system of dynamic speeds set by the vehicles themselves based on accepted safety standards.
- Driver licenses: If the car is doing the driving and I’m merely a passenger, do I need to have a license? Okay, human intervention will be mandated in this early period, so maybe we should have a different class of license that does not grant the right to drive, but rather to intervene. Removing age and license restrictions introduces a different set of consequences related to ownership and registration/licensing. More on that later.
- DUI: Do we need DUI laws for autonomous vehicles if the software rather than the person is doing all the work?
- Parking: An autonomous vehicle could drop me off at work and return home rather than having me pay for parking. Combine that with fleet-based ride-hailing for short hops and parking lots along with street parking get radically reduced.
- Tolls: If an autonomous vehicle doesn’t require a person, how can the bridge and road tolls be collected on traditional toll booth manned infrastructure?
- Liability: Who assumes it? We’re handing over operational responsibility to the vehicle itself, therefore it would be natural to assume that liability also transfers to the manufacturer. No? Sure, they could attempt to transfer it via EULA but at the end of the day a bug is going to have serious consequences that go beyond just being inconvenient.
- Traffic infractions: Similar to liability, if the vehicle does create an infraction, who gets the ticket?
- License plates: Need them? The autonomous vehicle is inherently connected, why does it need a license plate if, presumably, it won’t get pulled over and the registration information could be transmitted to an authenticated requester electronically?
- Configurable roadways: Networked vehicles present an amazing opportunity to convert a fixed and inflexible infrastructure to a dynamic and reconfigurable one. Heavy traffic going northbound on 280, take one of the southbound lanes and use it for northbound traffic for 30 minutes.
- First responders: Autonomous vehicles will reduce accidents, which suggests we will need fewer first responders. A self-managed fleet of vehicles will not require traffic enforcement.
- Shifting revenue: Take away towing fees because cars are not parking, traffic fines, DUI fines, etc., and a large chunk of revenue going to the government goes away. Of course, the necessary manpower used to enforce regulation also goes away so maybe it balances out.
As you can see, fascinating to consider the implications and yet public officials rarely even go there…