How Driverless Cars Could Reduce Deaths on the Road

This is the moment for driverless cars. They have captivated Silicon Valley for years, with everyone from Google to Uber to Apple developing their own technology. They have ascended in Detroit with Ford’s appointment of Jim Hackett, who worked in the company’s driverless car research subsidiary, to CEO. And they have now caught the attention of policymakers in Washington, DC and statehouses across the country, including some who are contemplating pending legislation about driverless cars. This is a global technology race and there will be a few fully autonomous taxis and shuttles—no steering wheel or brake pedals—on public French roads as early as next year.

We should welcome this newfound attention, and lawmakers and regulators should approach auto death and injury with the same urgency with which they have approached other health epidemics. Take for example, polio. Right before a vaccine was licensed in 1955, it killed about 16,000 Americans per year.

By contrast, 2016 brought 40,000 American auto fatalities. That’s more than 100 people per day. This represents the most roadway deaths of any year in the past decade. An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of accidents are caused by human error while driving. About one in four accidents involve alcohol.

However, instead of viewing driverless cars as an antidote to this public health crisis, some lawmakers and regulators seem to view driverless cars as a potentially greater danger. As a result, too many companies must beg for permission to exist, experiment, and deploy their vehicles (look no further than the fight earlier this year between Uber and the California Department of Motor Vehicles). This sentiment among policymakers is certainly understandable. No one wants to be responsible for approving the driverless car that ends up causing some harm.

But this approach is all wrong. As our colleagues Adam Thierer and Caleb Watney noted recently, “Generally speaking, wise policy that encourages innovation avoids prior restraints on trial-and-error experimentation. Prior regulatory restraints on innovative activities stifle the sort of creative, organic, bottom-up solutions that will be needed to solve problems that may be unforeseeable today.”

Lawmakers should focus less on preventing rare, worst-case scenarios and more on enabling the widespread, best-case scenarios—or in this case, the potential life-saving deployment of driverless cars to the general public. Companies should be viewed as partners that can help solve the public health crisis on our roads and create cheaper, convenient transportation for residents.

Are driverless cars perfect? Not at all. But they do not need to be perfectly reliable to be socially beneficial. Humans are far from perfect and yet we let more than 190,000,000 people take to the streets. Importantly, driverless car companies have immense incentives to allow only safe vehicles on the roads. Inevitably there will be hiccups, but lawmakers have never required perfect driving ability in order to operate on public roads. At this moment, there are millions of teenage drivers, distracted drivers, drivers with minor or undiagnosed visual impairments, and other unsafe or reckless drivers on the road.

The resistance to driverless cars is not unique to regulators or lawmakers, but is simply a reflection of current sentiment toward handing control over to computers, sensors, and algorithms. As Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, recently explained, “[T]he hardware may be ready before society is ready.” Until we accept the fact that driverless cars are a solution rather than a problem, we will continue to face an uncertain future.