Soapbox

Uber, like America’s greatest innovators, needs freedom to invent the future

A fleet of self-driving Uber cars is headed to Arizona after they were banned from California roads.
A fleet of self-driving Uber cars is headed to Arizona after they were banned from California roads. Associated Press

Thankfully the California Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t exist when the first Model T’s debuted on San Francisco streets, otherwise, horses and blacksmith shops might still exist throughout a state proud of its progressive nature.

Likewise, we’re equally fortunate bureaucrats didn’t stifle Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone or the Wright brothers’ airplane. These inventions shaped our nation but no doubt would have been halted by the kind of innovation-killing thinking regulators apply today in the name of saving us from ourselves.

American ingenuity, free of heavy-handed bureaucracy, fueled U.S. economic and political power, helping us win two world wars and establishing our position on the global stage. Lucky for us, regulators weren’t in charge then. Unfortunately, for the innovators at Uber, 2017 is another story.

Recently, after wrestling with Sacramento bureaucrats, officials at Uber announced they were moving their fleet of self-driving taxis from San Francisco to Arizona.

I’m glad they did.

The state’s decision to pull the registration of Uber’s test vehicles, effectively stopping its testing program, is a setback for the self-driving movement. Ironically, a decision intended to protect lives actually will end up leading to more deaths.

Why? Because more than 35,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes annually, with 94 percent of them resulting from driver-error. The longer we frustrate the efforts of modern innovators, the longer we accept motor vehicle deaths as a part of life today.

But traffic deaths aren’t the only downside of Sacramento’s decision. The state’s move to become the guardian of self-driving vehicle safety highlights the bigger problem of local governments itching to weigh in on a national opportunity, frustrating progress.

Simply put, states and municipalities cannot make their own rules for self-driving vehicles. The life-saving and social benefits that are in our collective national interest depend on consistent and uniform application of law, regulation and policy as it relates to safe testing and operation of self-driving vehicles. The federal government must be unambiguous in asserting this position as the ultimate regulator of vehicle safety.

That’s why we have pushed for an approach like the one outlined in our National Strategic Framework to Accelerate Self-Driving. The Trump administration has an opportunity to make our recommendations its own, and lead the nation toward a safer and more productive lifestyle through the advancement of autonomous transportation technologies, like self-driving cars.

Wrangling over a $150 permit will not result in safer streets. It will not bring freedom and independence to millions of disabled and senior Americans. It will not help us move freight faster or deliver products sooner. It will only give us headaches, delays and more senseless loss of life.

Uber and its competitors are working hard to bring us cars that need no driver. We should make the testing safe but not sheltered. We should aim for progress, not delays. And we should embrace the notion that what is good for Uber will be good for America.

Paul Brubaker is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation. He served under President George W. Bush at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Brubaker can be reached at pbrubaker@ati21.org.

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