Business

Is America too safe for innovation?

Lexus self-driving car

The year is 2025 and you’re watching Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.” After skewering the U.S. Department of Education for banning processed sugars from public school lunchrooms, Colbert ends the segment for a commercial break.

In the first commercial, the GEICO gecko and Flo from Progressive are arguing about how much money you can save on car insurance. You see the gecko and Flo turn towards the camera in unison, their eyes open wide in fear and you hear a car screech to a halt. As the camera angle changes to show the backs of the gecko and Flo, you see the new Tesla “Model Z” stopped in front of them. As the camera zooms closer, you notice that there is no driver in the front seat. The gecko and Flo look at each other, look back at the car and then step out of the way. The Model Z goes zooming by, and its rear license plate is etched with the Google triangle logo.

This is the future of our favorite insurance commercial characters – at least if we take Warren Buffet’s word. Google wants its self-driving cars on the road in five years, and at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, Buffet admitted “That is a real threat to the auto insurance industry… If [self-driving cars] prove successful and reduce accidents dramatically, it will be very good for society and very bad for auto insurers.”

As usual, Buffet is spot on: The innovation of self-driving cars will redistribute money from a $199 billion U.S. car insurance industry to technologists who can make auto accidents history. In the U.S. alone, self-driving cars could eliminate over 33,000 motor vehicle traffic deaths per year, 2.3 million injuries, and billions in car damage.

The acceleration towards driverless cars is rapidly increasing. Today, some cars can park themselves, vibrate your seat when you drift out of your lane, and even monitor your eyes to ensure they are focused on the road. Simultaneously, new technologies are distracting drivers from the road. New heads-up displays can show your smartphone screen on your windshield.

This will be one of the greatest economic shifts in U.S. history. However, it would be shortsighted to focus only on the commercial impacts of the shift. In short time, the safety imperative of removing human drivers from the roads will collide headlong with institutions that favor liberty, choice, and property rights.

Will the U.S. government ban driving to prevent 33,000 deaths and 2.3 million injuries per year? Will lobbying organizations form to resist the driverless society and stand up for the rights of motor enthusiasts? I predict that the rise of driverless technology will provoke a controversy as legally and morally heated as the current debate over gun rights.

Our gun laws emerged during an era when guns were both a military weapon and a tool for feeding one’s family. Gun legislation has become controversial because the significance of firearms has changed over the course of history. Millions of firearms are used responsibly in sports, but millions are also used in violent crimes. Likewise, the self-driven automobile is on track to becoming a sporting relic from a time when driving was as integral to survival as the gun was in the eighteenth century. And when this trend reaches its climax – perhaps within the next decade – all political hell is going to break loose.

Many critics will point to the security risks of having an entire country run on driverless technology. Just imagine if terrorists managed to hack the software behind driverless cars – could they not set up a horrifically violent attack?

From a health and protection perspective, banning driving is very safe. For a politician, banning driving might be very unsafe if getting reelected is a priority. “Safety” depends on what one would like to save. This brings us to the central question of this article: Is America becoming too “safe” to remain an innovative country? Politically, are we too safe to ban driving and is government too big to let people drive?

Some fear that innovation can impel a society to become more authoritarian. True, the archetypal Orwellian society is only possible with technologies that allow constant surveillance, but let’s not forget that history is filled with highly authoritarian and abusive regimes that didn’t need sophisticated technology. The day-to-day methods of the surveillance state in 1984 or V for Vendetta rely on innovations, but the nature of such regimes is distinct from the technologies they use to enforce submission.  Innovation is what humans do best – democratic and dictatorial regimes will both create novel solutions for their respective problems.

Sadly enough, driving on public roads will one day be illegal. Some of the foods we eat and ingredients in our beverages may also be declared illegal. The innovation path of driverless cars can’t be stopped because the majority of companies will jump behind driverless technology. For one, just imagine all the publishers, entertainment companies and social media sites that would love for drivers to be consuming instead of driving. During a four hour drive from New York to Boston, who wouldn’t want Netflix in the car? And what if marketers could target passengers based on the type of content they consume and their geo-location, and then suggest a nearby store where they can purchase the goods at a discount?

This driverless car debate is not a controversy between red and blue – this is a controversy between innovation and political equilibrium. Should we discourage certain innovations to preserve stability? Should we protect our citizens from change in the name of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”? Or should we promote innovation regardless of consequences, believing that ultimately innovation will produce political disruptions that lead to a better society?

I don’t have perfect answers to the driverless car debate, the gun controversy, or the sugary foods dispute. As I wrote recently, I do believe that technology defines our species. What I have is faith that innovative societies can produce solutions that satisfy the legal and moral complications of these problems. However, this will take reasoned debate – which today is the true deficit in our political system. The development of guns that only fire for one owner is a sign that innovators are trying to resolve the problem of gun violence, even though support for this solution has been lacking on all sides.

In my opinion, we will find a balance between technology and safety. We will develop great technology without sacrificing our freedoms. As the gecko and Flo step aside, we will let innovation write the next chapter in human history. Have faith that it will be better than the previous chapters, even if it is driverless and sugar-free.

Charles Rich is vice president of product management at Nastel Technologies. He is a software product management and marketing professional with over 20 years of experience working with application performance monitoring and IT service management software. He was also a contributor to four highly successful startups, including: InterWorld, Tivoli, SMARTS, and Collation and holds a patent for Application Performance Monitoring.


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