December 5, 2016

Comment on the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy

Key materials
Rule Details

Request for Comment on Federal Automated Vehicles Policy
Agency: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Transportation Proposed: September 23, 2016
Comment period closes: November 22, 2016
Submitted: November 22, 2016
Docket ID: NHTSA-2016-0090

INTRODUCTION 

The Technology Policy Program of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University is dedicated to advancing knowledge about the effects of regulation on society. As part of its mission, the program conducts independent analyses to assess agency rulemakings and proposals from the perspective of consumers and the public. Therefore, this reply comment does not represent the views of any particular affected party but is designed to assist the agency as it explores these issues.

We appreciate the opportunity to submit reply comments regarding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. We are also grateful to our Mercatus colleague Oliver Sherouse for his valuable help in the construction of our regulatory delay model.

THE BASELINE IN THE DEBATE OVER AUTOMATED VEHICLE POLICY 

“Every single death on our roadways is a tragedy,” NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind noted recently. “We can prevent them. Our drive toward zero deaths is more than just a worthy goal. It is the only acceptable goal.”

We agree. Zero fatalities on our roads is a noble goal. But the length of time it takes to reach that goal is just as important as the goal itself. We are concerned that NHTSA’s proposed policy for automated vehicles may inadvertently increase the number of total automobile fatalities by delaying the rapid development and diffusion of this life-saving technology. 

At every juncture of this ongoing debate over highly automated vehicle (HAV) policy, we must keep in mind the real-world baseline of motor vehicle safety. As NHTSA knows all too well, the current baseline is troubling, with over 35,000 people dying on US roadways in 2015 (roughly 96 people per day) and 94 percent of all crashes being attributable to human error. More disturbing is the fact that, as NHTSA recently noted, “preliminary estimates for the first half of 2016 show an alarming uptick in fatalities—an increase of about 10.4 percent as compared to the number of fatalities in the first half of 2015.”

Imagine if everyone who was drunk behind the wheel were instead in the backseat of an HAV. In 2014 nearly 9,100 people were killed in alcohol-impaired-driving crashes (25 people per day), and there was an average of one alcohol-impaired-driving fatality every 53 minutes. And motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people age 16 through 24. It seems reasonable to assume that the majority of these tragedies could be avoided if autonomous systems took over the job of driving for us.

For these reasons, some have pointed out that “automation on the roads could be the great public-health achievement of the 21st century” if HAV technology can help address this situation and move us closer to a world of zero fatalities.  Every policy decision must be judged by how rapidly it can help us advance that goal and move us away from the current baseline in terms of both lives lost and other costs to citizens and the economy. 

Indeed, the toll in terms of human lives is not the end of the story. The estimated economic cost of all motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States in 2010 (the most recent year for which cost data is available) was $242 billion. Lowering the frequency of accidents will, therefore, have many beneficial effects on the economy. 

If HAV technology eliminates the need for households to own vehicles altogether, the economic implications will be profound for a typical family. In his recent book, Humans Need Not Apply, computer scientist Jerry Kaplan observes that, with the average car costing owners $9,151 per year to drive 15,000 miles (2013 data) and with most households owning two cars, American households spend $18,000 annually on their vehicles. Because driverless cars will help bring down transportation costs, and because fewer Americans may need to own cars at all, Kaplan estimates a potential 75 percent drop in the cost of personal transportation—a savings roughly equal to a typical family’s entire annual food budget.

The NHTSA should keep these numbers in mind as it contemplates public policy for HAVs. Any policy that would slow HAV innovation would likely have profoundly deleterious implications for society. 

THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH PRIOR RESTRAINT 

In this section, we identify the most worrisome portion of the NHTSA’s proposed HAV guidance: the agency’s suggestion that some sort of premarket approval authority might be needed for these technologies. 

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. Attempting to preemptively plan for every hypothetical worst-case scenario and then requiring it to be addressed through a regulatory process means that many best-case scenarios will never come about.

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