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The future has a habit of sneaking up on you. I grew up at a time when flatscreen televisions were always ‘ten years away’ – and then, all of a sudden, they arrived.

Another long-promised gee-whiz technology is also on its way – only this one can literally sneak up on you:

“Intelligent cars are possible today after decades of research and development in vehicle automation and computer processing.”

Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann of the Mercatus Center, believe that the main obstacle to a driverless future isn’t technical, but political:

“Advanced intelligent vehicle technology can bring significant economic and social benefits. Unfortunately, policymakers often impose ‘precautionary principle’ policies on developing technology, stunting growth and discouraging innovation. Though it is well intentioned, trial-without-error policymaking results in fewer choices, lower-quality goods and services, and diminished economic growth. Regulators should not demand that developers prove that intelligent vehicle technology will not cause any harm.”

To be sure, we’re right at the beginning of this new era of motoring. But as fully and semi-automated vehicles venture from the labs and test tracks on to the public highways, a decision of huge strategic important needs to be made: how many fatalities are we willing to tolerate?

Make no mistake, the first time that an automated vehicle kills someone, the tabloids will go into overdrive. Ordinary cars kill people each and every day (an average of 92 in the US and 5 in the UK), but every death and injury caused by driverless cars will be laid at the door of the politicians who allowed them on to the roads.

Thierer and Hagemann call for “permissionless innovation” which they define as “the idea that experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default”:

“Permissionless innovation brought the Internet, an open and lightly regulated platform that allows entrepreneurs to adopt new business models and offer new services without first seeking approval from regulators.”

The internet, however, is not capable of leaving you as a greasy smear on a zebra crossing. Politicians, therefore, will need nerves of steel if they are to extend this principle to a potentially – indeed, inevitably – lethal technology.

They will also need to persuade the public about the bigger picture:

“Driver errors resulting in accidents cost $300 billion annually in the United States. While intelligent vehicles will not be 100 percent accurate 100 percent of the time, they will likely achieve a level of control and awareness that no human could possess, thus reducing the economic impact of accidents. Additionally, insurance premiums could fall or even disappear entirely.

“Intelligent vehicles will also reduce congestion and lower fuel consumption. In 2011 congestion caused drivers to spend an extra 5.5 billion hours on the road and purchase 2.9 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $121 billion. Intelligent vehicles will help reduce human-initiated driving errors, allowing vehicles to travel at higher speeds and closer together, reducing congestion costs.”

In short, this technology is not a gimmick – its potential for saving human life and restoring the innovation-led growth of the economy is of massive significance.

However, all significant innovation takes place through a process of trial-and-error. If our politicians insist on what the authors call “trial-without-error” then we face a future without progress.

33 comments for: Will our politicians be brave enough to let driverless cars kill people?

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