Tyler Cowen on the Driverless Car

May 29th, 2011

Tyler Cowen, America’s Hottest Economist, has a cool piece in the Times about the economic implications of the driverless car, such as Google’s new prototype.

The purpose of the Op-Ed is to prevent a regulatory backlog that could stifle this novel technology before it gets started

The point is not that such cars could be on the road in large numbers tomorrow, but that we ought to give the cars — and other potential innovations — a fair shot so that a prototype can become a commercial product someday. Michael Mandel, an economist with the Progressive Policy Institute, compares government regulation of innovation to the accumulation of pebbles in a stream. At some point too many pebbles block off the water flow, yet no single pebble is to blame for the slowdown. Right now the pebbles are limiting investment in future innovation.

The driverless car is illegal in all 50 states. Google, which has been at the forefront of this particular technology, is asking the Nevada legislature to relax restrictions on the cars so it can test some of them on roads there. Unfortunately, the very necessity for this lobbying is a sign of our ambivalence toward change. Ideally, politicians should be calling for accelerated safety trials and promising to pass liability caps if the cars meet acceptable standards, whether that be sooner or later. Yet no major public figure has taken up this cause.

I’d imagine many politicians who would be the ones to regulate this technology have chauffeurs funded by tax-payer dollars, so this technology may not be as appealing to us plebeians (I used that word twice in one day. ha!). The benefits of driverless cars could be staggering. I can’t imagine how much more productive I would be if I had a chauffeur to take me anywhere I want to go.

The benefits of driverless cars are potentially significant. The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably. Furthermore, computer-driven cars could allow for tighter packing of vehicles on the road, which would speed traffic times and allow a given road or city to handle more cars. Trips to transport goods might dispense with drivers altogether, and rental cars could routinely pick up customers. And if you worry about the environmental consequences of packing our roads with cars, since we can’t do without them entirely, we still can make those we use as efficient — and as green — as possible.

Some more Cowen-wisdom. Keep in mind what is seen, and unseen.

Consider this thought experiment. Assume that driverless cars could certainly reduce deaths by avoiding accidents caused by people who drive while intoxicated or who simply make stupid driving decisions, like driving on the wrong side of the road. Add in the likelihood that even after they are perfected and well inspected, driverless cars would lead to special problems, perhaps if the computers don’t respond properly to some unusual situations.

To continue this experiment, imagine that the cars would save many lives over all, but lead to some bad accidents when a car malfunctions. The evening news might show a “Terminator” car spinning out of control and killing a child. There could be demands to shut down the cars until just about every problem is solved. The lives saved by the cars would not be as visible as the lives lost, and therefore the law might thwart or delay what could be a very beneficial innovation.

More on Marginal Revolutions from Cowen.

I previously blogged about Google’s efforts to lobby Nevada to legalize driverless cars.