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Regulators, Hands Off the Autopilot!

Tesla provides an autopilot that allows its cars to drive themselves in certain circumstances. Recently, while on autopilot, a Tesla car crashed and killed the driver. The autopilot apparently did not distinguish between a white tractor-trailer and a brightly lit sky in the background of the trailer. The driver is rumored to have been looking at a movie, against the express mandate that a driver using the autopilot keep his hands on the steering wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the crash, and the government is now considering how to regulate autopilots. I fear that if regulators aren’t careful, they may kill more people than they save. The basic problem is that first recognized by the great French economist Frederic Bastiat. People too often consider effects that can be seen, but not those that are invisible. Here the focus is likely to be on lives lost by the autopilot, often in fiery crashes that get attention. But lives may be saved as well by its introduction and these lives will receive almost no attention. Statically, the current autopilot itself may save some lives. Dynamically, permitting autopilots may lead to faster improvement in self-driving cars that may save more lives in the future. There are a lot of such lives to be saved. More than 30,000 people die each year in car crashes in the United States, and most such crashes are caused by driver error.

This problem is compounded by the prism though which government bureaucrats view regulation. Many politicians will blame them for accidents caused by autopilots that they did not prohibit. Many fewer will blame them for the lives lost by failure to innovate.

Moreover, the current rationale for regulating for safety is inapplicable to regulating autopilots. The best argument for safety regulation is that car buyers may not being willing to spend on safety features that raise the cost of the car, because they will not appreciate their virtues, particularly as almost everyone believes himself an above-average driver. But the issue here is not to mandate an autopilot, but to determine what kind of autopilots to permit. And even without government regulation, drivers are likely to make the sensible choices about what kind of autopilots to buy, because they bear the additional cost. And tort law will police unreasonably dangerous autopilots by holding companies liable.  To be sure, the market backed by tort law may not make perfect decisions, but it seems likely to make better ones that the government, burdened both by bureaucratic (mis)incentives and by the general problem for regulators of  evaluating unseen benefits.

I would make one exception to this hands-off attitude to regulation. The government should prevent autopilots from  favoring the lives of those in the car as opposed to pedestrians or occupants of other cars. Car buyers may have perverse incentives to buy such autopilots even though they would not be in the public interest. But I would limit federal regulation  so as to encourage swift innovation in the most promising development for motoring since Henry Ford invented the Model T.

Reader Discussion

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on July 20, 2016 at 15:43:25 pm

Consumer Reports questions wisdom of Tesla's autopilot. In part, Consumer Reports attacks Tesla's policy of calling their feature an "autopilot." According to the article:

Tesla’s own press release for the system announced “Your Autopilot has arrived” and promised to relieve drivers “of the most tedious and potentially dangerous aspects of road travel.” But the release also states that the driver “is still responsible for, and ultimately in control of, the car.”

At a minimum, that's a mixed message. And it wouldn't be too great a stretch to call it fraud.

But check out the readers' comments at the end of the Consumer Reports story: They're uniformly in McGinnis's camp.

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nobody.really
on July 21, 2016 at 10:18:59 am

Yeah, well what is to now become of the tine honored phrase "Asleep at the Wheel"?

Question:

A police officer stops a car with a broken tail light. He finds that the driver is quite intoxicated.
The drunk slurs out the words - "Yeah, but I ain't driving - Tesla is"
Should he be subject to DUI?

If not, I want my driverless car (some would say that is already the case with me) stocked with a nice little wine cellar / fridge.

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gabe
on July 21, 2016 at 14:51:48 pm

Most likely, government will eventually exercise some control over what car autopilots do as a way of reducing congestion. Highway traffic will often slow down because of incautious drivers changing lanes in heavy traffic. They cause the cars behind them to slow down to create a safe distance. That causes traffic flow problems.

By managing the operation of autopilots government can improve traffic flow as well as safety. By improving traffic flow less road expansion is needed.

The expansion of technology creates less privacy. I would also expect more mandatory automated monitoring of vehicles as they drive. Perhaps manually driven cars would monitor how often the driver changes lanes in heavy traffic and assign fines to the driver when changing lanes too often.

For myself, I just want a display for my back window so I can send messages and images to the driver behind me. Imagine the possibilities.

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Scott Amorian
on July 21, 2016 at 14:52:35 pm

You. Me. Tesla. ROAD TRIP!!!!

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Scott Amorian
on July 21, 2016 at 15:10:54 pm

Luvv'd it!

Hopefully, the rear window display will NOT be subject to censorship - what's a few choice words after all?

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gabe
on July 21, 2016 at 16:40:22 pm

Here you go.

http://electrek.co/2016/07/21/tesla-autopilot-saved-life-prevented-serious-injury-pedestrian-dc/

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Scott Amorian
on July 21, 2016 at 16:52:36 pm

Make gabe bring the wine. He likes the pricey stuff.

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nobody.really
on July 22, 2016 at 10:38:05 am

A police officer stops a car with a broken tail light. He finds that the driver is quite intoxicated.
The drunk slurs out the words – “Yeah, but I ain’t driving – Tesla is”
Should he be subject to DUI?

Yes.

If not, I want my driverless car (some would say that is already the case with me) stocked with a nice little wine cellar / fridge.

Those are two very different vehicles. The first one is just a regular car with a fancy cruise control. A driverless car is a fully autonomous vehicle. I expect such vehicles will be equipped with fridges and microwave ovens. AV's will allow commuters and vacationers to eat, drink, and be merry, instead of enduring the drudgery of driving.

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CapitalistRoader
on July 22, 2016 at 12:15:43 pm

Hey, like Scott says:

Road trip anyone?

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gabe
on July 23, 2016 at 02:13:50 am

"People too often consider effects that can be seen, but not those that are invisible."

A parallel to this can be seen in the gun control debate. The authoritarians want to talk about the lives taken by guns, but they refuse to admit that many more lives, by several orders of magnitude, are saved by guns.

It's a common problem.

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Boyd
on July 23, 2016 at 10:45:26 am

Why should anyone get a DUI ?
Either the autopilot is capable of driving the care as safely as an ordinary human - which appears to be the case, or it is not - in which case it is not DUI - but subject to significant Torts.

Widespread moves towards more self driving cars ultimately eliminates DUI laws and other government infringements on liberty.

What is the purpose of a DUI law ? To stop people from drinking ? Or to stop people from harming others ?
If the latter - we never needed DUI laws in the first place - Torts should have worked fine.
I do not really care if someone drinks and drives - I care if they harm me - whether they are drunk, or just reckless.

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jbsay
on July 23, 2016 at 10:47:32 am

Most likely government will do something - because government is incapable of keeping its hands off anything.
As to congestion increasingly capable self driving cars will resolve that on their own.
Optimizing travel time based on all currently available routes and their relative congestion is a problem well suited to computers.

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jbsay
on July 23, 2016 at 10:54:00 am

Technology does not inherntly effect privacy one way or the other.
Encryption as an example increases privacy.

The effect of technology on privacy - absent government is to give us choices regarding privacy.
We can give or financial history to a bank - and receive a loan, or not and they can decline to provide services.
This does nto change as technology increases.
Where there is broad concern about privacy - providers will be compelled to roll back intrusions, and find alternative means of providing the same service.

Regardless, that is what free markets and free exchange means - I get to decide.
It does not mean absolute assurance I have whatever choices I wish for.
But it does mean that I can decide between those available - that government does not decide for me.
Ultimately that increases the likelyhood that the available choices will change towards what I would optimally prefer.

In polls people are uniformly less concerned about sharing private information with business than government.

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jbsay

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