McArdle, on Autopilot, Misses a Turn

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Image of autonomous vehicles via Wikipedia
For a recent editorial on self-driving cars, Megan McArdle's title deserves an "A" for getting attention and an "F" for principle: "I'm a Libertarian. But Self-Driving Cars Won't Thrive Without Some Government 'Meddling'" Long-time readers might think I threw the flag on the first word, but I'm allowing a more generous interpretation of libertarian as meaning "pro-capitalist" there. I will even offer my qualified agreement with her, up to a point:
Regulators are by their very nature risk-averse. Tragedies get laid at their door, while the main result of a success is that someone else gets the credit for whatever great new thing the regulator didn't prevent from happening. Innovating in a heavily regulated area, such as the national highway system, is thus a bit of a challenge. In the U.S., this difficulty is compounded by the fact that state and local governments also like to get in on the action. To get self- driving cars on our roads, we need a comprehensive federal framework that encourages innovation. [bold added]
Indeed, given the regulatory and legal milieu of the United States today, some coordination of regulation (along with relief from liability) will have to happen for this technology to see daily use -- her "Level 4 automation" -- if it is even possible to do so in such a heavily-regulated sector. Sadly, we may be decades away from getting anywhere near a proper level of freedom in the transportation sector.

That said, McArdle missed an opportunity to discuss how this could occur in a radically different legal context that truly does encourage innovation -- by respecting individual rights. Granted, it would take more than a column to make a full case for a truly private infrastructure, a tort system that isn't based on shaking down whoever has the deepest pockets, and allowing a combination of the profit motive and non-government standards bodies to take care of ensuring that the technology can be applied uniformly-enough to be useful for transportation. (Quick thought experiment: You run a private highway. You know that many different types of cars come to and from your road from other roads. Wouldn't it make good sense to come to some kind of consensus with auto manufacturers and other road owners on how to make this all work? Your time and distance perspective will already be greater than that of the local transit authorities or state regulators we now have. Your decisions will also not be subject to change at the whim of an unelected bureaucrat or an elected official in charge of said bureaucrat.)

That said, it would clearly take a book or more to flesh out such arguments -- well beyond the scope of a column. But it would have been nice if McArdle, an intelligent writer whom I often enjoy, had at least indicated that an alternative to our current system of controls (which breed like rabbits) is possible. And again, there is the possibility that our government system is too brittle to allow fully automatic cars. Absent an alternative vision of government, we could well end up never seeing automatic cars at all, and falling for the myth that it was a nut we never really could crack.

-- CAV

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