The precautionary principle generally states that new technologies should be restricted or heavily regulated until they are proven absolutely safe. In other words, out of an abundance of caution, the precautionary principle holds that it is “better to be safe than sorry,” regardless of the costs or consequences. The problem with that, as Kevin Kelly reminded us in his 2010 book, What Technology Wants, is that because “every good produces harm somewhere… by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted.” The precautionary principle is, in essence, the arch-enemy of progress and innovation. Progress becomes impossible when experimentation and trade-offs are considered unacceptable.
I was reminded of that fact while reading this recent piece by Marc Scribner in the Washington Post, “Driverless Cars Are on the Way. Here’s How Not to Regulate Them.” Scribner highlights the efforts of the D.C. Council to regulate autonomous vehicles. A new bill introduced by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) proposes several preemptive regulations before driverless autos would be allowed on the streets of Washington. Scribner summarizes the provisions of the bill and their impact:
- “requires that a licensed driver be present in the driver’s seat of these vehicles. While seemingly inconsequential, this effectively outlaws one of the more promising functions of autonomous vehicle technology: allowing disabled people to enjoy the personal mobility that most people take for granted.”
- “requires that autonomous vehicles operate only on alternative fuels…. [which] could delay the technology’s widespread adoption for no good reason.”
- “would impose a special tax on drivers of autonomous vehicles” which would “greatly restrict the use of a potentially revolutionary new technology by singling it out for a new tax system.”
The first of these provisions is the one the one that most closely resembles the traditional Precautionary Principle, but the other provisions are based on a similar instinct that progress can be preemptively planned. Yet, as Scribner correctly notes,
no one knows precisely how autonomous vehicle technology will develop or be adopted by consumers. Cheh’s bill presumes to predict and understand these future complexities and then imposes a regulatory straitjacket based on those assumptions. . . . Cheh’s bill will unduly restrict many promising vehicle features, prevent the wider voluntary adoption of this promising technology through foolish green-government paternalism and create a new tax system without proper consideration.
That’s exactly right and it’s the perfect answer to those who advocate the precautionary principle mindset. Trying to dictate progress and safety from above sometimes means you’ll get less of both.