It’s about robots, not electric cars

Autoindustry cannot use Trump to delay self driving cars

The new government under Trump and a Republican Congress offer great hope for industrial companies in the US. The prospect of trade barriers, crony capitalism and the potential for more wars is driving share prices higher. Car manufacturers in particular are enjoying a boost in their shares. They might profit from a relaxation of emissions standards which were pushed by Obama.

But the real reason car manufacturers should be joyful is the prospect of delaying self driving cars. Tesla is way ahead in this field and given how artificial intelligence works, a small lead can quickly turn into an insurmountable advantage. With actual self driving cars on the road, Tesla can constantly improve its algorithms and move away from competition.

While Detroit has not openly spoken against Tesla, yet, other competitors namely Google and Baidu have already voiced concern with Teslas approach. Both of them are at the cutting edge of robot technology for cars, but they lag behind Tesla and other competitors such as Uber. The problem for Google and Baidu as well as most of Detroit is that they don’t have actual customers driving around in robots. Therefore they don’t have “real” test data. All their tests and algorithms are based on laboratory like experiments. While that works, it’s not going to be as effective as the “real” data that Tesla is testing against.

Now, they are not stupid and they understand that giving Tesla too much of a lead in self drive technology could result in too much of a gap. Hence, they started offering concerning remarks about the risks and safety aspects of semi autonomous cars, which are cars that can drive themselves but need driver assistance. While some of those concerns are valid, I can’t help but wonder if they are genuine. Typically, incumbents use this “merchants of doubt”-method when they lag competition. Merchants of doubt try to spread opinions and change social acceptance in their favor by casting doubt over the opponents vision. Doubt is a great tool since it doesn’t require evidence. All you need to do is convince people that self driving cars are not safe and they will use caution and potentially refrain from buying such even though there is not hard evidence.

Enter Trump.

With the new presidency there are opportunities for incumbents and competitors like Google and Baidu to stop the likes of Tesla and Uber from getting too much of an advantage. Google X boss Astro Teller recently gave an interview where he touted the argument that semi self drive is not safe enough.

In tandem with the rest of the car industry they might try to use the new power in Washington to delay progress so they can gain ground. This is a risk.

Fortunately, the key legislative power as far as self driving cars are concerned lies with the states. Here is an excerpt from the governing body in Washington, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Authority, in short NHTSA.

“NHTSA is clear in its guidance that states retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes and that the model state policy included in NHTSA’s policy release is in no way binding on states wishing to take action regarding use of HAVs in their state.”

This is great news for progress, since it means that the states can ultimately decide wether robots can drive or not. There are two implications.

  1. While Trump might want to stop innovators such as Tesla, some states, namely California, might fight back
  2. There is a high chance that innovation and progress will prevail over lobbying and crony capitalism since competition amongst states is good for innovation.

Let’s assume Trump decides to stop self driving cars. He really doesn’t have the power over this since California or Texas or Montana can decide for themselves. They might even try to attract factories, design and software development to their state by offering incentives.

Innovation is a strong magnet for states since it brings high paying jobs.

The Trump election will most likely make the US a lot more federal. That’s a good thing.