Uber is bringing self-driving cars to Pittsburgh this week — and leaving regulators in the dust.
The ridesharing service is the first of its kind to bring autonomous cars to the general market. However, Pennsylvania has no laws or regulations governing application of the new technology.
“Consumer protection” advocates are already on the case, grumbling that the company is moving too quickly. Joan Claybrook, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), states “[Uber is] essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs. Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”
However, average citizens only become passengers in one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles if they voluntarily opt-in, meaning they perceive that the benefits outweigh the risks. Uber also includes two trained drivers with every car as a safety precaution.
Furthermore, mass opinion is a necessary part of the widespread adoption of new technologies. Many are skeptical of or uncomfortable with giving control over driving decisions to computers. By allowing consumers to experiment, Uber speeds up this process.
It is ironic for Claybrook, as a former head of the NHTSA, to claim that someone else is turning commuters into guinea pigs. After all, the NHTSA is a federal regulatory body that creates rules and mandates for the entire country without anyone’s consent. In addition, during Claybrook’s reign from 1977 to 1981, there were ~50,000 deaths due to traffic accidents every year. Since then, that number has dropped to a still abysmal ~33,000 per year.
Many believe that self-driving cars would serve as a near-panacea for traffic related deaths, by cutting down on human error. The question is, then: how long should society wait for regulators to catch up to the market? What is the death toll one is willing to accept? Whatever risk Uber may be adding by speeding up adoption, they are simultaneously saving thousands of lives.
Innovators always move faster than regulators — and for good reason. The former are the pioneers of society, taking the risks that move mankind forward. The latter are the obstructionists that get in the way.