Regulators Slamming the Brakes on ‘Permissionless Innovation’

Published October 15, 2015

Technology companies such as Google are experimenting with self-driving cars, using sensors and software to drive an automobile more accurately and safely than human drivers do.

Responding to the potential new technology, some states, such as California and Nevada, are rolling out new regulations governing autonomous vehicles.

Getting Out of the Way

Other states, such as Texas and Virginia, are allowing self-driving cars on the roads, taking a default position of “permissionless innovation.”

Permissionless innovation is the idea people and companies should not have to receive regulatory permission before experimenting with or inventing new technologies or products.

Marc Scribner, a research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says Google’s experiences with California regulators drove it to test its self-driving car technology in Texas.

In 2010, Google demonstrated a prototype autonomous car technology, showing how a legally blind volunteer could use the car to travel around Morgan Hill, California.

“Google asked the California Highway Patrol if what they did was legal, and the CHP came back and said there is nothing on the books that prohibits this,” Scribner said. “So, fast-forward a couple of years, after they enact this statute. The operation they did in 2010 with the legally blind man would be outlawed today. That is why you now see Google be very critical of similar state efforts.”

Regulators in the Slow Lane

Scribner says state governments are shaping the future landscape of automated-vehicle regulations, making federal regulators obsolete.

“The states are looking at automated vehicle technologies as the future, but at the federal government, and [among] some of the traditional automakers, you have this 1990s mindset,” Scribner said. “We have an environment where these old motor vehicle codes never contemplated the notion that you would have a vehicle operate without a driver.”

Bottlenecking Progress

Ryan Hagemann, a policy analyst on technology and civil liberties for the Niskanen Center, says outdated regulations are restricting technological progress.

“The one thing most people do agree on is the biggest hurdle is regulatory,” Hagemann said. “So it’s not the technology, but [the question is] how do we get these autonomous vehicles on the road while there are still people driving their car?”

Tony Corvo ([email protected]) writes from Beavercreek, Ohio.