General Motors is trying to do something
about self-driving cars, otherwise known as autonomous vehicles. Besides their technical R&D
efforts, a recent Associated Press report revealed that GM lobbyists have been
busy in numerous U. S. states trying to get a particular bill passed that
allegedly would protect the public from self-driving-car hazards. But what it’s really supposed to do is
to protect GM from having to compete with other self-driving car makers and
This is a big deal, because decisions made
at the state legislative level today could have profound implications for the
development of the infant autonomous vehicle business in the U. S. for
decades. I won’t quite say the
bill would strangle the infant in its crib, but it comes close.
What GM proposes is to allow mainly fleets
of automaker-leased autonomous vehicles on the road. These would be fully self-driving machines—no operator
standing by—and in targeting centrally-owned fleets, GM has singled out what is
the most likely initial application of these vehicles. The first commercially deployed
autonomous vehicles are operating in just such a fleet-style mode in a
densely-populated section of Singapore, for example. But the kicker is that the law would require that the maker
of the cars retain ownership of them, even if they were deployed only for
Other autonomous-vehicle promoters,
including major car companies such as Ford, Volvo, and Audi, oppose the bill,
saying it’s an attempt to slant the playing field in favor of GM. It’s also opposed by Uber, Lyft, and
other organizations such as Google that don’t make cars but are still
interested in autonomous vehicles for various reasons.
I have to hand it to GM for their political
insight, however. State
legislatures tend to be pushovers for corporate-friendly laws, a tradition
going back at least to the early twentieth century. For example, it’s a fact that Tesla Motors cannot sell its
cars directly to Texas consumers.
Why not? Because way back
when the first car dealerships were being established in the 1910s and 1920s,
they banded together in most states and got laws passed that prohibited large,
powerful auto companies from selling cars directly to consumers. In this way, a specific group of
businesses got a law passed that was nominally for consumer protection but in
fact was a special favor to the group.
Ties between car dealers and state legislatures have been close ever
since, and GM is using this continuing closeness to try to get its law
The AP article cites numerous legislators
who have received contributions from GM and also favor GM’s legislation. It’s an open secret, at least in Texas,
that quid-pro-quo legislation in response to contributions (or less legal kinds
of influence) goes on all the time, and so it’s not surprising that GM has made
considerable progress with its attempts to get its legislation passed. But now that we know about it, a
consideration of the parties involved can show just how bad an idea it could
The groups significantly affected by this
matter are: (1) the Big Three U.
S. automakers (Ford, Chrysler, and GM), (2) other organizations that don’t make cars but are interested
in autonomous vehicles for various reasons (Google, Uber, and other
experimenters and inventors), (3)
state legislatures, who hold the main responsibility for laws regulating
driving and drivers, (4) the federal government, which has so far mostly stayed
out of the way of this matter, at least with regard to formal legislation, and
(5) the car-driving or car-riding public.
From the public’s point of view, it makes sense to have the widest safe
variety of options available for self-driving cars: partially self-driving vehicles owned by the driver/rider,
wholly self-driving cars owned and operated by a fleet manager, leased self-driving
cars, retrofitted self-driving cars, and whatever else can safely be done in
this area to see which usage models work economically and which don’t.
While the focus up to now has been mostly on
the technology, astute observers have pointed out the possibility that
self-driving cars could revolutionize the whole economic makeup of the auto
industry. Car ownership in the
future might be as quaint or peculiar-looking now as ownership of a private
electric-power plant looks today, but that’s the way many privately-owned homes
of the rich were provided with electricity in the very early days of electric
lighting. Some forecasters see
visions of autonomous vehicles, like mini-buses or cabs, showing up on command
at your doorstep, with everybody living in apartments without garages or
parking lots. Nobody has
satisfactorily explained to me where all these garageless vehicles will go at
night when demand is down, but I suppose there must go someplace. At the minimum, they could park
themselves in dense ranks instead of regular lots, which have to allow any-time
access for any vehicle and consequently are at least 70% or so open space.
Whatever the details, GM has realized that
autonomous vehicles are a potential threat to their current business
model. Hence their rather clumsy
attempt to get ahead of the curve with legislation that would favor automakers
to the exclusion of nearly everyone else.
Needless to say, if GM’s proposals turn into law in every state, it will
severely hamper all the other models of large-scale deployment of autonomous
vehicles, but we might just be stuck with it, like we’re stuck with
locally-owned car dealerships to this day, whether it makes sense to sell cars
that way or not.
I don’t know if this matter merits a
citizens’ letter-writing campaign, but at the very least we should be aware
that GM is trying to throw up a big legislative roadblock in the path of
self-driving cars. Let’s hope that
state legislators all across the country do the statesman-like thing and resist
the temptation to give in to one special interest at the price of
inconvenience, or worse, for the general public.