June 2017

Whatever you want to call them–autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, automated systems, unmanned systems, connected cars, piloteless vehicles, etc.–the life-saving potential of this new class of technologies has been shown to be potentially enormous. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and writing about these issues, and I have yet to see any study forecast the opposite (i.e., a net loss of lives due to these technologies.) While the estimated life savings vary, the numbers are uniformly positive across the board, and not just in terms of lives saved, but also for reductions in other injuries, property damage, and aggregate social costs associated with vehicular accidents more generally.

To highlight these important and consistent findings, I asked my research assistant Melody Calkins to help me compile a list of recent studies on this issue and summarize the key takeaways of each one regarding at least the potential for lives saved. The studies and findings are listed below in reverse chronological order of publication. I may try to add to this over time, so please feel free to shoot me suggested updates as they become available.

Needless to say, these findings would hopefully have some bearing on public policy toward these technologies. Namely, we should be taking steps to accelerate this transition and removing roadblocks to the driverless car revolution because we could be talking about the biggest public health success story of our lifetime if we get policy right here. Every day matters because each day we delay this transition is another day during which 90 people die in car crashes and more than 6,500 will be injured. And sadly, those numbers are going up, not down. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), auto crashes and the roadway death toll is climbing for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, the agency estimated that 94 percent of all crashes are attributable to human error. We have the potential to do something about this tragedy, but we have to get public policy right. Delay is not an option.

Continue reading →

By Brent Skorup and Melody Calkins

Tech-optimists predict that drones and small aircraft may soon crowd US skies. An FAA administrator predicted that by 2020 tens of thousands of drones would be in US airspace at any one time. Further, over a dozen companies, including Uber, are building vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that could one day shuttle people point-to-point in urban areas. Today, low-altitude airspace use is episodic (helicopters, ultralights, drones) and with such light use, the low-altitude airspace is shared on an ad hoc basis with little air traffic management. Coordinating thousands of aircraft in low-altitude flight, however, demands a new regulatory framework.

Why not auction off low-altitude airspace for exclusive use?

There are two basic paradigms for resource use: open access and exclusive ownership. Most high-altitude airspace is lightly used and the open access regime works tolerably well because there are a small number of players (airline operators and the government) and fixed routes. Similarly, Class G airspace—which varies by geography but is generally the airspace from the surface to 700 feet above ground—is uncontrolled and virtually open access.

Valuable resources vary immensely in their character–taxi medallions, real estate, radio spectrum, intellectual property, water–and a resource use paradigm, once selected requires iteration and modification to ensure productive use. “The trick,” Prof. Richard Epstein notes, “is to pick the right initial point to reduce the stress on making these further adjustments.” If indeed dozens of operators will be vying for variable drone and VTOL routes in hundreds of local markets, exclusive use models could create more social benefits and output than open access and regulatory management. NASA is exploring complex coordination systems in this airspace but, rather than agency permissions, lawmakers should consider using property rights and the price mechanism.

The initial allocation of airspace could be determined by auction. An agency, probably the FAA, would:

  1. Identify and define geographic parcels of Class G airspace;
  2. Auction off the parcels to any party (private corporations, local governments, non-commercial stakeholders, or individual users) for a term of years with an expectation of renewal; and
  3. Permit the sale, combination, and subleasing of those parcels

The likely alternative scenario—regulatory allocation and management of airspace–derives from historical precedent in aviation and spectrum policy:

  1. First movers and the politically powerful acquire de facto control of low-altitude airspace,
  2. Incumbents and regulators exclude and inhibit newcomers and innovators,
  3. The rent-seeking and resource waste becomes unendurable for lawmakers, and
  4. Market-based reforms are slowly and haphazardly introduced.

For instance, after demand for commercial flights took off in the 1960s, a command-and-control quota system was created for crowded Northeast airports. Takeoff and landing rights, called “slots,” were assigned to early airlines but regulators did not allow airlines to sell those rights. The anticompetitive concentration and hoarding of airport slots at terminals is still being slowly unraveled by Congress and the FAA to this day. There’s a similar story for government assignment of spectrum over decades, as explained in Thomas Hazlett’s excellent new book, The Political Spectrum.

The benefit of an auction, plus secondary markets, is that the resource is generally put to its highest-valued use. Secondary markets and subleasing also permit latecomers and innovators to gain resource access despite lacking an initial assignment and political power. Further, exclusive use rights would also provide VTOL operators (and passengers) the added assurance that routes would be “clear” of potential collisions. (A more regulatory regime might provide that assurance but likely via complex restrictions on airspace use.) Airspace rights would be a new cost for operators but exclusive use means operators can economize on complex sensors, other safety devices, and lobbying costs. Operators would also possess an asset to sublease and monetize.

Another bonus (from the government’s point of view) is that the sale of Class G airspace can provide government revenue. Revenue would be slight at first but could prove lucrative once there’s substantial commercial interest. The Federal government, for instance, auctions off its usage rights for grazing, oil and gas retrieval, radio spectrum, mineral extraction, and timber harvesting. Spectrum auctions alone have raised over $100 billion for the Treasury since they began in 1994.

[originally published on Plaintext on June 21, 2017.]

This summer, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of two developments that gave us the modern Internet as we know it. One was a court case that guaranteed online speech would flow freely, without government prior restraints or censorship threats. The other was an official White House framework for digital markets that ensured the free movement of goods and services online.

The result of these two vital policy decisions was an unprecedented explosion of speech freedoms and commercial opportunities that we continue to enjoy the benefits of twenty years later.

While it is easy to take all this for granted today, it is worth remembering that, in the long arc of human history, no technology or medium has more rapidly expanded the range of human liberties — both speech and commercial liberties — than the Internet and digital technologies. But things could have turned out much differently if not for the crucially important policy choices the United States made for the Internet two decades ago. Continue reading →

I’ve written here before about the problems associated with the “technopanic mentality,” especially when it comes to how technopanics sometimes come to shape public policy decisions and restict important new, life-enriching innovations. As I argued in a recent book, the problem with this sort Chicken Little thinking is that, “living in constant fear of worst-case scenarios—and premising public policy on them—means that best-case scenarios will never come about. When public policy is shaped by precautionary principle reasoning, it poses a serious threat to technological progress, economic entrepreneurialism, social adaptation, and long-run prosperity.”

Perhaps the worst thing about worst-case thinking is how short-sighted and hubristic it can be. The technopanic crowd often has an air of snooty-ness about them in that they ask us to largely ignore the generally positive long-run trends associated with technological innovation and instead focus on hypothetical fears about an uncertain future that apparently only they can foresee. This is the case whether they are predicting the destruction of jobs, economy, lifestyles, or culture. Techno-dystopia lies just around the corner, they say, but the rest of us ignorant sheep who just can’t see it coming!

In his wonderful 2013 book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the BetterClive Thompson correctly noted that “dystopian predictions are easy to generate” and “doomsaying is emotionally self-protective: if you complain that today’s technology is wrecking the culture, you can tell yourself you’re a gimlet-eyed critic who isn’t hoodwinked by high-tech trends and silly, popular activities like social networking. You seem like someone who has a richer, deeper appreciation for the past and who stands above the triviality of today’s life.”

Stated differently, the doomsayers are guilty of a type of social and technical arrogance. They are almost always wrong on history, wrong on culture, and wrong on facts. Again and again, humans have proven remarkably resilient in the face of technological change and have overcome short-term adversity. Yet, the technopanic pundits are almost never called out for their elitist attitudes later when their prognostications are proven wildly off-base. And even more concerning is the fact that their Chicken Little antics lead them and others to ignore the more serious risks that could exist out there and which are worthy of our attention.

Here’s a nice example of that last point that comes from a silent film made all the way back in 1911! Continue reading →