Uber’s Latest: Should Driverless Cars Require Voter Approval?

Driverless vehicle technology isn’t ready for the mainstream public, but it’s getting there: automakers and technology giants across the world have plans for autonomous vehicles in various stages of development, and one carmaker — you may have heard of it, Tesla — has already begun allowing its vehicle owners to use partially autonomous features in many of its car models. These cars are sharing your streets. Have you asked yourself if you’re okay with that?

Driverless technology is new, and will almost certainly present safety concerns, at least at first, and public infrastructure will need to be updated and adapted for driverless technology to truly go mainstream.  

We’ve theorized about what still stands in the way of mainstream driverless vehicles, but recent events are forcing the regulatory hand of states and cities across the country, all of which have different laws in place regarding autonomous technology. Uber stands out as an early example of where other driverless vehicle developers will run into legal trouble, and how municipalities respond now will set the precedent for what’s looking more and more to be the inevitable mainstreaming of driverless technology. 

How much say will the voting public have in whether or not states allow driverless vehicles and how much the government adapts existing infrastructure (with, presumably, public funds) to meet the driverless needs of private industry?

Uber’s Fraught Relationship with the Law, and What it Could Mean for Our Potential Driverless Future

Uber has been pushing its agenda on cities throughout the world since 2009, with mixed reception. If cities don’t bend to its will, Uber has proven that it is willing to move along. In the spring of 2015, Uber threatened to exit the city of Austin unless voters changed a rideshare safety standard law that was about to go into effect that Uber found prohibitive to their business structure. Austin voters effectively called Uber’s bluff, but Uber stuck to their guns. The rideshare app left the tech-centric capital of Texas almost immediately, with no plans to return.

Uber has a habit of asking for forgiveness, rather than permission, and while it’s led to lawsuit after lawsuit, the behavior has also turned Uber into the biggest rideshare company in the world, valued at over $51 billion. But while lawmakers struggled to keep up with regulations as Uber expanded its ridesharing efforts, as the company moves toward driverlessness, the stakes are now even higher for the general public.

On December 14th, The New York Times reported the details of a transportation stand-off between the city of San Francisco and rideshare giant Uber. Uber began offering self-driving car services in the city without regulators’ permission — in fact, against their wishes. Uber, which already operates a self-driving service in Pittsburgh, was ordered by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to end the driverless service, declaring that Uber did not have the necessary permits to operate self-driving vehicles within city limits. California law requires companies to have autonomous vehicle testing permits, something Uber never obtained, even while it was actively testing its driverless technology in the state. At first, Uber refused to respond to orders from city officials to cease their self-driving operations in San Francisco, but a week later, Uber ended the program, vowing to continue the fight.

Driverless Uber San Francisco | Should Driverless Cars Require Voter Approval?
Photo Credit: New York Times

Uber’s move in San Francisco wasn’t a complete flouting of the rules. The company claimed that its self-driving cars didn’t fall under the definition the state of California laid out for autonomous vehicles (and therefore weren’t subject to the regulations) because each self-driving Uber still had an active, participating driver ready to take over. But the self-driving Ubers were photographed driving dangerously, reports Slate, running red lights, and making unsafe turns, among other infractions.

In short, driverless Ubers raised concerns among lawmakers and the general public and proved that laws will have to keep close pace with technology if lawmakers want to be able to enforce them.

Uber’s behavior (in San Francisco and beyond) isn’t just about one company in one city; it’s about how much say the public has in the future of our roads and infrastructure. Will private companies like Uber eventually be able to bend the laws to suit their needs, even getting taxpayers to make roads more amenable to self-driving technology? And how much say will the rest of us have in keeping our roads safe?

A look back 100 years ago when automobiles first became mainstream offers some clue to our future.

When Cars Had No Roads

Automobiles got their start in the U.S. in the late 1800s and steadily increased in popularity. The first Ford Model T appeared in 1908 and the first automobile assembly lines (for the Model T) in 1913. However, government automobile regulation didn’t exactly keep pace with industry — at least not at first.

Adding Speed Limits

In 1901, Connecticut passed the first state law regulating automobiles. The legislature set a speed limit of 12 mph within cities and 15 mph outside of them. Incidentally, this wasn’t the first speed limit, writes WIRED, but it was the first one for cars. Previously New Amsterdam (which became New York City) limited the speeds of wagons, carts, and sleighs.

In 1903, the city passed the world’s first comprehensive traffic code, writes History.com, but “adoption of speed regulations and other traffic codes was a slow and uneven process across the nation.”

In 1930, 12 states still had no speed limit, and 28 still didn’t require a driver’s license.

Though motor vehicle regulation laws have usually been left to the states, there is precedent for federal regulations. In 1974, President Nixon signed into law a national speed limit of 55 mph, a law Congress repealed in 1995, putting speed limit control back into the hands of each state.

We can see echoes of this uneven adoption of regulations with driverless vehicles today: the voting public elects lawmakers who intervene with laws when either public safety or other concerns arise, but these laws are often reactionary, meaning that just as there were years of lean regulation when automobiles first became mainstream, we are likely to see uneven adoption of regulations that come about to address an existing problem rather than prevent them in the first place. Some of this makes sense. Before the technology exists and potential problems are known, the laws can’t be written, but it’s important that regulations continually adapt in keeping with new technology.

As voters, we’re likely to have say in how much our public infrastructure and existing traffic laws adapt to accommodate driverless vehicles through our representatives (or through ballot measures in states that employ them), so it’s important to elect officials whose approach to driverless technology matches our preferences.

driverless transit vehicle
Alliance for Transportation Innovation’s driverless transit vehicle. Photo Credit: Star-Telegram

Pushback from the Public

Even though private citizens won’t directly vote on laws allowing (or disallowing) driverless vehicles on our roadways, the public will still be able to make their voices and opinions known to both lawmakers and corporations. As driverless technology becomes more reality than theory, experts say we’re likely to see some pushback from the public.

“Driverless-car technology is going to be the most disruptive technology in all of history,” futurist Thomas Frey announced during an opening session of the two-day Texas Transportation Forum in Austin on February 6th 2017 the Star-Telegram reports. When Americans no longer own or drive their own vehicles and instead rely on a fleet of interchangeable driverless cars, industries from insurance to automobile manufacturing to repairs to deliveries will be affected in ways we can’t even yet imagine, Frey said.

In Texas, at least, tax-supported funding for changing infrastructure isn’t a concern: the state has a $38.3 billion surplus for highway development over the next decade. Lawmakers and transportation officials will have to guide the public and private corporations through the changes, keeping up with technology and consumer demands, including fears (many of which are valid) about the safety of new technologies.

And when it comes to companies that push the boundaries of technology, like Uber, some formerly accommodating cities and officials are beginning to push back. Pittsburg, site of Uber’s first driverless rideshare experimenting, has been bending over backwards for Uber for years, reports Quartz, but Uber hasn’t returned the favor. “Unfortunately, to this point, the relationship with Uber appears to be a one-way limited-access highway,” city controller Michael Lamb said, reports Quartz. “They currently operate as though they have been given carte blanche access to our city.” It appears that Uber and other rideshare companies will need to work on their relationship with cities and towns throughout the country if they want to get anywhere with their new technologies.

For now, the answer to the question of when driverless cars will be ready for the market is unknown, but legislatures and officials across the country are girding themselves for what’s looking more and more like our inevitable future. And the answer to the question of how much say voters should (or will) have is also up for debate: so tell us, do you think driverless cars should require voter approval to drive on your streets? Or do you trust state and local (and even federal) officials with the reigns? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


  • Nelson Nigel

    Ladies and Gentlemen, the future is here. The train has left the station and it just happens that it may be driver-less. How qualified are you for another job?