Mark Zuckerberg popularized the slogan "move fast and break things" to describe the breakneck pace of innovation at Facebook, and the phrase has become popular across Silicon Valley. So what happens when technology companies start to build a technology — self-driving cars — that can literally move fast and break not just things but people?
It's a crucial question not only for the major Silicon Valley companies working on self-driving technology — including Google, Uber, and Tesla — but also for regulators. The balance is tricky: If regulators are too lax, people could die from malfunctioning self-driving vehicles. But overregulation could delay the introduction of cars that drive themselves much better than a human driver, costing many more lives in the long run.
So is it time for federal and state regulators to crack down on the self-driving free-for-all? There's definitely more that officials could be doing. At a minimum, the federal agency in charge of car safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could use additional resources to hire more technologists and build the infrastructure they'll need to adequately monitor the industry's evolution.
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"I've felt for a while that things have been a little bit out of control" on the regulatory front, industry analyst Edward Niedermeyer told me in an interview.
A lot of self-driving car regulations are enforced at the state level, and technology companies have become adept at playing states against each other. In much of the US, "autonomous driving is a free-for-all," writes Backchannel's Mark Harris. "Uber taxis are transporting passengers in Pittsburgh, Google's self-driving prototypes are criss-crossing Texas, and Tesla's cars are taking over the wheel nationwide, with little official testing or licensing of the technology beforehand."
But tightening regulation too much could quite literally cost lives. Human-driven cars kill 100 Americans per day, on average. Once self-driving technology is perfected, it could dramatically reduce that death toll, saving thousands of lives every year.
"Am I concerned about self-driving cars? Yes," says Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. "But I'm terrified about today's drivers."