Justin Tallis / Getty Images

Last week, Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle sister company, somewhat quietly announced that its newest fleet of cars would be able to do a million trips a day by 2020. Atlantic tech writer Alexis Madrigal wrote about how that would radically change America:

2020 is not some distant number. It’s hardly even a projection. By laying out this time line yesterday, Waymo is telling the world: Get ready, this is really happening. This is autonomous driving at scale, and not in five years or 10 years or 50 years, but in two years or less.

… With Waymo’s most recent announcement, now is the time to think through these larger questions. They are bigger and harder because they cannot be answered by technological proof. They involve power—Alphabet’s power, the power of labor, the power of local governments to control their jurisdictions.

For an example of what happens when a technology gains massive scale before any regulatory infrastructure is in place, look no further than Facebook. Now, as that company grapples with its role in sowing chaos before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. election, its executives are suggesting that maybe being regulated wouldn’t be such a bad thing. In this issue, we ask: Will governments be able to catch up with the pace of innovation on autonomous vehicles?


Corporate Self-Regulation Might Not Be Enough

Atlantic tech writer Ian Bogost examines the limited regulatory oversight of autonomous vehicles.

For a technology that isn’t really deployed yet, autonomous vehicles are already having a remarkable impact on cities. One justification for the technology is safety—reducing or eliminating tens of thousands of vehicular and pedestrian deaths every year in the United States alone. But these vehicles promise convenience, too: Reduced traffic and more pleasant commutes and trips, thanks to cars that can coordinate among themselves.

Governments and municipalities are so eager to encourage self-driving vehicles, regulatory oversight for the technology has been limited, or else supportive of the industry. Thirty-three U.S. states have enacted legislation or issued executive orders on the matter, and dozens of countries, including the Netherlands, Singapore, Germany, and South Korea have done so as well. But in most cases, “regulation” means policies that allow the testing or operation of self-driving cars, more than policies that manage the complexity of introducing them, over years or decades, into cities.

Two recent, fatal collisions of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles might give citizens pause. The first, a collision in early March between an Uber test vehicle and a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, might demonstrate the downsides of permissive regulation: Last year, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey introduced an executive order removing most roadblocks for autonomous-vehicle testing. And the fatal crash of a Tesla operating in “autopilot” mode in California two weeks later shows the limits of software updates meant to increase the safety of that semi-autonomous mode.

Those updates had been introduced after another fatal crash in Florida, in 2017. These incidents suggest that corporate self-regulation might be insufficient.

Fully autonomous vehicles—that is, cars that can drive themselves in difficult conditions without human intervention—are still a long way off, and they might never replace all vehicles in all situations. Executive orders like Ducey’s encourage low-oversight operation of these vehicles in the short-term. Normally, common law—decisions made by courts—would mitigate the negative effects of statutory law in civil and criminal litigation, especially in the case of death or injury.

But autonomous vehicles might be moving too fast for that. Waymo announced plans to roll out 20,000 autonomous, electric vehicles as a ride-hailing service by 2020. And federal legislation, such as the proposed AV START Act, could allow companies to force consumers to resolve self-driving-car complaints through arbitration, limiting the impact of common-law precedent.

The matter goes well beyond safety. If autonomous vehicles operate as ride-share services, then the regulatory holes companies like Uber have opened in the taxi and livery industries might expand—discrimination among accepted fares, for example, or among pickup and drop-off destinations. Not to mention all the data operators will collect about riders and where they go, or pressures companies might apply to local municipalities, which are struggling to maintain or expand infrastructure, to get their way.

The high-profile fatalities in Arizona, Florida, and California have given the public pause, and corporations and governments have recoiled too. Ducey suspended Uber’s operation in his state, and other operators have suspended testing elsewhere. But once the dust settles, the rollout will likely proceed again, under the permissive rules already in place.

It’s not too late for regulation to rein in the autonomous-vehicle industry, and to do so without interfering with the many future benefits of self-driving cars. But in another year or two, autonomous services will begin to become entrenched, and their wealth and power could make public intervention far more difficult than it is today.

—Ian Bogost


“Their Hands Would Be Pretty Much Tied”

Karen Yuan talks to a city policy advisor grappling with the effects of autonomous vehicles.

In the race to get autonomous vehicles on city roads, tech companies have pressured federal and state governments to help speed up their timelines. These vehicles offer a lucrative opportunity to revamp city transit, companies have said. But the pace of these innovations could quickly overwhelm cities and their governments.

Take Oregon. Noah Siegel, a Portland-based political strategist who served in the mayor’s office, told me Oregon’s Department of Transportation is competitive about getting autonomous vehicles on roads as quickly as possible. He said the governor’s office is expected to issue an executive order. Part of the incentive to move fast is the allure of having technologically progressive cities. “People want to get in quickly on this. There’s a certain amount of prestige in getting there first,” Siegel wondered, “But what’s in it for the cities?”

After the fatal Uber crash in Tempe, The Guardian revealed that Arizona’s state government had enabled Uber to secretly begin testing its self-driving cars in the state without informing its cities. The total number of companies testing in Arizona is still unknown to those outside of the state’s Department of Transportation and the governor’s office.

“There are absolutely a lot of tensions,” Siegel said, between state and city governments on the regulation of autonomous vehicles. Much of that stems from the different concerns each government tends to have. From the federal-, and often state-, level perspective, the more cars that can run on road systems, the better. Cities, though, have to consider congestion and equity. Even if autonomous vehicles were privately owned, accessible only to the wealthy, that traffic would affect the rest of the community. “At the state or federal level, you’re not thinking about this,” Siegel said.

The huge cost in setting up infrastructure worries some cities. Most city governments “really don’t have capacity and bandwidth to deal with it,” Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, said. “And they will have to.” Portland announced plans to test autonomous vehicles last year, but Siegel wasn’t aware of any infrastructure help from the federal government for the vehicles.

Though some city-set regulations, such as mandates that autonomous vehicles must be fleet-owned instead of privately-owned, could help alleviate issues, cities don’t have much control over regulation. The federal government has shown little desire to constrain the progress of self-driving cars, and federal law is highly likely to preempt city as well as state governments. The AV START Act, which passed the House, would stop both cities and states from enforcing any kind of regulation if it were to pass in the Senate. “Their hands would be pretty much tied,” Jim McPherson, a legal consultant on autonomous vehicles, said. Even in California, the state with some of the strictest regulations for autonomous vehicle testing, the AV START Act would nullify an existing law on safety rules.

Typically, the feds license manufacturers of cars, the state licenses drivers of cars, and cities regulate the local roads cars drive on. “Now there’s conflict,” McPherson said, with autonomous vehicles, which confuse legal definitions for regulation: Are they cars, drivers and cars, or drivers?

That ambiguity is what’s helped allow tech companies to rush autonomous vehicle testing and development on city roads with looser regulations. Uber and Waymo aren’t obligated to share information with local governments on the number, boundaries, and operators of their cars on local roads, which makes it difficult for cities to know what to regulate. It’s hard for cities to contest any of the companies’ activities, too, and expensive for a city to face a tech company off in court. “It’s intimidating to go up against Google or Uber,” Siegel said.

Another obstacle against the ability of cities to regulate is their own appetite for the influx of money and jobs autonomous vehicles—and the tech companies that build them—might bring. “It’s a love-hate relationship,” Sperling said. “Cities desperately need jobs and the help of tech companies, but at same time, they’re being run over, figuratively and literally.”

—Karen Yuan


An Atlantic Dive into the History of Tech Warnings

Abdallah Fayyad shares the technologies that have occupied our anxieties in the past.

It’s always been easy for the human imagination to summon the dark side of new technologies. So we thought it was worth taking a quick look back at a few other times The Atlantic sounded a cautionary note about new tech, so you can judge the warnings for yourself.

  • In 1905, Frederick W. Coburn worried that the soon-to-be ubiquitous telephone was changing the way humans interacted. One form of communication had him particularly concerned: “In the progressive and telephone-saturated communities of the Coast,” he wrote, “the old-fashioned love letter has become quite out of date. There is no longer any occasion for amatory correspondence.”

  • In 1928, someone writing under the pseudonym Neon thought that while the invention of the airplane was a sensational feat, commercial air travel was unlikely—if not impossible. Neon was unconvinced that a plane would be able to safely carry heavy loads like large groups of passengers. “The force of gravity ever pulling the plane and its load to earth, will ever set a limit to the achievements of aircraft and be the insurmountable barrier to commercial success in the air,” they wrote.

  • In 1937, Gilbert Seldes wrote about the problems that the television would face as it entered American homes. You might still hear one of his complaints from people—especially parents—today: “The thing moves; it demands complete attention. You cannot walk away from it, you cannot turn your back on it, and you cannot do anything else except listen while you are looking.” By 1980, film critic Roger Ebert was warning, in contrast,  that television was not too absorbing, but too dull to match the thrill of going to the movies: “Television is not a substitute for that experience, and I have never had a TV-watching experience of emotional intensity comparable to my great movie-going experiences. Television is just not first class.”

  • In 1997, Todd Oppenheimer worried that computers were having an adverse effect on learning. “Throughout the country, as spending on technology increases, school book purchases are stagnant. Shop classes, with their tradition of teaching children building skills with wood and metal, have been almost entirely replaced by new ‘technology education programs,’” he wrote, adding that “in the process, [the computer] may also limit the development of children's imaginations.”

—Abdallah Fayyad


Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: Will autonomous cars get here too fast? Or not fast enough? Reply and tell us.

  • What’s coming: Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. We’ll talk to the editors of our special KING issue about how they created it.

  • Your feedback: Click the button below to tell us what you think of today’s email.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.