Big Brother Wants to Run Your Self-Driving Car

As a part of his 2017 budget proposal, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx proposes to spend $4 billion on self-driving vehicle technology. This proposal comes late to the game, as private companies and university researchers have already developed that technology without government help. Moreover, the technology Foxx proposes is both unnecessary and intrusive of people’s privacy.

In 2009, President Obama said he wanted to be remembered for promoting a new transportation network the way President Eisenhower was remembered for the Interstate Highway System. Unfortunately, Obama chose high-speed rail, a 50-year-old technology that has only been successful in places where most travel was by low-speed trains. In contrast with interstate highways, which cost taxpayers nothing (because they were paid for out of gas taxes and other user fees) and carry 20 percent of all passenger and freight travel in the country, high-speed rail would have cost taxpayers close to a trillion dollars and carry no more than 1 percent of passengers and virtually no freight.

The Obama administration has also promoted a 120-year-old technology, streetcars, as some sort of panacea for urban transportation. When first developed in the 1880s, streetcars averaged 8 miles per hour. Between 1910 and 1966, all but six American cities replaced streetcars with buses that were faster, cost half as much to operate, and cost almost nothing to start up on new routes. Streetcars funded by the Obama administration average 7.3 miles an hour (see p. 40), cost twice as much to operate as buses, and typically cost $50 million per mile to start up.

The point is that this administration, if not government in general, has been very poor at choosing transportation technologies for the twenty-first century. While the Antiplanner has been a proponent of self-driving cars since 2010, I believe the administration is making as big a mistake with its latest $4 billion proposal as it made with high-speed rail and streetcars.

The problem is that the technology the government wants is very different from the technology being developed by Google, Volkswagen, Ford, and other companies. The cars designed by these private companies rely on GPS, on-board sensors, and extremely precise maps of existing roadways and other infrastructure. A company called HERE, which was started by Nokia but recently purchased by BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, has already mapped about two-thirds of the paved roads in the United States and makes millions of updates to its maps every day.

Foxx is proposing to spend most of the $4 billion on a very different technology called “connected vehicle” or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. In this system, the government would have to install new electronic infrastructure in all streets and highway that would help guide self-driving cars. But states and cities today can’t fill potholes or keep traffic lights coordinated, so they are unlikely to be able to install an entirely new infrastructure system in any reasonable amount of time.

Moreover, the fixed infrastructure used for connected corridors will quickly become obsolete. Your self-driving car will be able to download software upgrades while sitting in your garage overnight–Teslas already do so. However, upgrading the hardware for a connected vehicle system could take years and might never happen due to the expense of converting from one technology to another. Thus, Foxx’s plan would lock us into a system that will be obsolete long before it is fully implemented.

Privacy advocates should also worry that connected roads would also connect cars to government command centers. The government will be able to monitor everyone’s travel and even, if you drive more than some planner thinks is the appropriate amount, remotely turn your car off to “save the planet.” Of course, Foxx will deny that this is his goal. Yet the Washington legislature has passed a law mandating a 50 percent reduction in per capita driving by 2050, and California and Oregon have similar if not quite-so-draconian rules, and it is easy to imagine that the states, if not the feds, will take advantage of Foxx’s technology to enforce their targets. No such monitoring or control is possible in the Google-like self-driving cars.

Foxx’s infrastructure is entirely unnecessary for self-driving cars, as Google, Audi, Delphi, and other companies have all proven that their cars can work without it. Not to worry: Foxx also promises that his department will write national rules that all self-driving cars must follow. No doubt these rules will mandate that the cars work on connected streets, whether they need to or not.

Some press reports suggest that Foxx’s plan will make Google happy, but it is more likely to disappoint. Google is already disappointed with self-driving car rules written by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. But what are the chances that federal rules will be any better–especially if the federal government is dead-set on its own technology that is very different from Google’s? If the states come up with 50 different sets of rules, some of them are likely to be better than the others, and the others can follow the best examples.

If Congress approves Foxx’s program, the best we can hope for is that Google and other private companies are able to ignore the new technology. The worst case is that the department’s new rules not only mandate that cars be able to use connected streets, but that they work in self-driving mode only on roads that have connected-streets technology. In that case, the benefits of self-driving cars will be delayed for the decades that it takes to install that technology–and may never happen at all if people don’t the extra cost for cars that can drive themselves only on a few selected roads and streets.

All government needs to do for the next transportation revolution to happen is keep the potholes filled, the stripes painted, and otherwise get out of the road. In contrast, Foxx’s is a costly way of doing more harm than good.

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4 thoughts on “Big Brother Wants to Run Your Self-Driving Car

  1. rjmason

    It is incorrect to say that self-driving cars were developed without government help. All the people running Google’s self-driving car program got their start building cars for the DARPA Grand Challenge for Autonomous Ground Vehicles between 2003 and 2007. The amount of government spending was relatively trivial—a few tens of millions of dollars over five years—but still very important in jump-starting the field.

    (I helped build three cars under the DARPA program.)

    I agree with the larger point that the government/industry vision of connected roads has been left behind by autonomous self-driving cars.

  2. Frank

    All the people running Google’s self-driving car program got their start building cars for the DARPA Grand Challenge for Autonomous Ground Vehicles between 2003 and 2007.

    All? That’s a bold assertion; evidence?

    The CEO of Google’s self-driving care program was the CEO of Hyundai Motor America and TrueCar. DARPA isn’t listed on his LinkedIn profile.

    Given there are nine pages of employment ads for the self-driving car project (including ads for program managers) the bold assertion just doesn’t hold up.

  3. prk166


    It is incorrect to say that self-driving cars were developed without government help. All the people running Google’s self-driving car program got their start building cars for the DARPA Grand Challenge for Autonomous Ground Vehicles between 2003 and 2007. The amount of government spending was relatively trivial—a few tens of millions of dollars over five years—but still very important in jump-starting the field.
    ” ~rjmason

    The problem this presents is what exactly is what. How does one place importance on something like DARPA versus the long line of technologies that are key to getting to the self driving car, a concept that has been around since at least the 1930s.

    Would the self driving car be possible if it wasn’t for the gyroscope ( thanks to Sperry, now part of Honeywell )? What about key developments in Computer Science’s Artificial Intelligence arena? Most all of those happened long, long, long before DARPA? What about missile guidance technology?

    How do we weigh the value of the Mars missions? What about the open pit mines that employ self driving vehicles? How does the importance of the invention and developments in LIDAR come into play?

    We long, long ago reached the point where technological changes are really just the result of thousands of hundreds of thousands of minute improvements in existing technologies mashed together and used in a newish sort of way. DARPA had it’s role but it is – from what I can see – is a contribution the size of a thymbol in a haystack. Granted this haystack may not exist the way it does w/out that thymbol but it’s not a key component like LIDAR, etc. The learning could have and likely would’ve occured someplace. DARPA just happened along at the right time to be that place.

    At least that’s my two-bits worth.

  4. CapitalistRoader

    It must be that the opportunity for graft is entirely too small with current AV technology. $4 billion divided by 535 members of Congress = $7.5 million each. There’s some real money to be made there. Campaign coffers don’t fill themselves.

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