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Driverless cars shouldn’t be a race; better to be safe than first

Most self-driving vehicle technologists now think it may take decades until computer-piloted cars are commonplace.

NEW YORK: I grind my teeth when the metaphor of “a race” is used in discussions about self-driving vehicle technology.

Companies developing computer-piloted car technology, including Tesla, the Chinese company Baidu, and Waymo, a sibling company of Google, are regularly described as being in a horse race to make self-driving vehicles ready for widespread use. Some U.S. policy organizations and elected officials talk about America’s need to demonstrate “leadership” by beating China at autonomous technology.

There are risks to moving too slowly with a technology that could make people’s lives better, but we shouldn’t uncritically buy the narrative that a technology that will take many years to develop — and could have both profound benefits and fatal pitfalls — should be treated as a race.

The danger is that an artificial sense of urgency or a zeal to “win” could create unnecessary safety risks, give companies permission to hog more of our personal information and prioritize corporations’ self-interest at the expense of the public good.

When you read that a company or country is speeding, rushing, racing or winning in an emerging area of technology, it’s useful to stop and ask: Why is it a race at all? What are the potential consequences of this sense of urgency? Whom is this message for?

Most self-driving vehicle technologists now think it may take decades until computer-piloted cars are commonplace. Another month, year or two years might not make much difference, and it’s not clear that all races are worth winning.

So why does this narrative about self-driving cars exist? First, companies find it useful to be perceived by their employees, investors, business partners, regulators and the public as having the best shot at making safe, useful and lucrative computer-piloted transportation technology. Everyone wants to back a winner.

Pioneers have a shot at dictating the direction of a new technology and building a network of business allies and users.

But winning a “race” in technology isn’t always meaningful. Apple wasn’t the first company to make a smartphone. Google didn’t develop the first online search engine. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company didn’t produce the first advanced computer chip. They are technology superstars because they did it (arguably) best, not first.

Second, the “race” narrative feels like a cudgel to persuade the public or elected officials to move faster with rules and regulations, justify loose ones or expose people to unnecessary risks to “win.”

In an interview last year with Kara Swisher, who at the time hosted a Times Opinion podcast, the 23andMe chief executive Anne Wojcicki lamented that the U.S. was “behind” China in an “information war that’s going on with respect to understanding the human genome.” Then Swisher asked: “Is this a war we want to win?”

Good question. If China is collecting mass amounts of people’s DNA, does that mean the U.S. should do it, too?

Plus, putting this much focus on driverless cars also may crowd out alternative ideas for improving transportation.

Perhaps the race metaphor we need is from Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Slowly, steadily, sensibly, with a keen awareness of the benefits and drawbacks — that is the way to win the self-driving car race. (But it’s not a race.)

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