Opinion

Will government regulation crash driverless cars?

We’ve made amazing technological progress in the last century. Just over 100 years ago, the “horseless buggy” was the cutting edge of innovation.

Today, driverless cars are the next big thing, and many self-driving vehicles are already in the testing phase on roadways across the country. Driverless cars promise countless benefits, from increased safety, to greater independence for seniors and persons with disabilities, to reduced energy consumption. We must ensure that regulations and red tape don’t stifle the technology’s development.

Driverless cars are not just a distant idea. Industry experts say fully autonomous vehicles could be a common sight on U.S. roads by 2025. Seven states — including California, Florida and Nevada — have legalized the testing of self-driving cars, and several others are considering doing the same. Many teams are competing to develop the best model. Carnegie Mellon University is working on one for General Motors. Google has already logged more than 435,000 miles test-driving its self-driving car, and other companies are working on the technology as well.

At this year’s International CES®, the world’s largest annual innovation event, Audi and Toyota demonstrated their driverless models. Lexus’ Advanced Active Safety Research Vehicle and the Audi 7 incorporate GPS functionality, cameras, radar, laser tracking and much more, making it possible for these cars to get around by themselves. Industry experts say the technology will be ready for the open road within the next 10 years.

The potential social benefits of self-driving cars are huge. They could dramatically reduce deaths and injuries by cutting down the number of traffic accidents, a leading cause of death for Americans, especially teens. Driverless cars could also improve the lives of seniors and people with disabilities. Last year, Google showed a remarkable video of a blind, 95-year-old man named Steve Mahan “driving” one of its self-operated vehicles.

Moreover, driverless cars would free up time spent commuting. On average, Americans spend 52 minutes per day in cars just getting to and from work. If we didn’t have to devote our attention to driving, we could use that time to do other things.

Driverless technology has attracted a lot of attention, and the federal government is already considering nationwide regulations and standards to ensure safety. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued policy recommendations for regulating driverless cars, urging caution as we enter this exciting new era of driving. Yet before we begin drafting policy, many questions about driverless technology need to be answered.

This technology is still in the early stages, and there are shortcomings that have to be addressed. Computer systems in driverless cars can’t navigate treacherous conditions, such as snow, and are not able to stay within lanes in bad weather. They also can’t identify traffic signs or pedestrians. There are also questions of liability and insurance coverage. Who would be responsible if a police officer pulled over a self-driving car, for instance? Who would be liable in the case of an accident? Another consideration is that jobs centered on driving would likely be lost, a problem for people who drive cabs or buses. All of this has to be taken into account as the technology moves forward.

Policymakers have taken a balanced approach so far in their suggestions for regulation, and that is promising. In the future, lawmakers must be careful not to block progress and innovation. Driverless cars are inevitable, and they offer a host of benefits to society. My fear is that we will overregulate the technology in the name of “safety.”

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.