Nevada became the first state in the nation to establish regulations governing the operation of driverless cars on their roadways this week. The action will provide companies developing such automobiles the legal protection needed to test their innovations in the real world. The development presents a pressing question for Connecticut residents as we consider our economic future: why aren’t we at the forefront of innovations like this?
As Connecticut looks to its economic future, emulate the Silver State’s regulatory foresight and attracting the kind of innovators that would make use of such rules should be the top priority of our elected officials.
The concept of the driverless car – an automobile equipped with technologies that do not need a human being to control the steering wheel, work the clutch, gas, and brake pedals, or follow the rules of the road – is nothing new. Rod Alexander, a former executive at Ford Motor Co., recently noted that the idea has been around for at least 40 years. The last 10, though, have been the most exciting.
As noted recently in Wired Magazine’s featured piece, major technology players like Google, BMW, and Audi are working furiously to produce cars that can drive 75 mph on busy highways, climb mountains, and cruise around tight corners safely and without human intervention. It seems like only a matter of time until such vehicles move from prototype to the parking lot.
Though the center of the action seems to be California and Nevada at the moment, there is no reason Connecticut couldn’t be a major player in this field. In addition to a highly educated population, a proud tradition of Yankee ingenuity, easy access to venture capital firms along the state’s Gold Coast and New York, and the challenges of sometimes-perilous New England roads, the state could be a key proving ground for cars without drivers.
The state’s current economic development strategy, in which Gov. Malloy and his administration pick winners and losers through programs like First Five or fortunate vacationing seem unlikely succeed in this effort. Fostering this kind of innovation requires the kind of economic development work that is often eschewed by politicians hoping for big wins on their watch – things like driving down utility prices, taxes, insurance, and regulatory compliance costs.
The Governor does seem to be on the right path on reforming the state’s education system so that good teachers are rewarded, bad teachers are fired, and every student is well prepared for the rigors of an information-technology economy. But there remains a very long way to go before such proposals become reality.
Improvements like these will attract new residents and entrepreneurs but also threaten the status quo and force difficult changes for some stakeholders in our society – like teachers unions that can no longer rely on seniority to dictate who gets fired rather than achievement. Embracing change is hard but necessary for us to compete and win in the new economy.
Driverless cars will be a game-changing innovation for everyone. Cars that don’t get distracted by text messages, commercials on the radio, or trying to apply mascara while behind the wheel mean fewer accidents, cheaper car insurance, and less stress. It will make commuting time more productive and likely reduce the gridlock on our highways. Connecticut can be on the cutting edge, but we have to choose to be.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com