Column: Uber shifts risk to taxpayers
Research and development is the engine that drives innovation and long-term corporate profitability. Businesses spend billions every year to develop new products and technologies, even though most of these audacious projects will never bring a product or service to market and recoup their high costs.
So it’s little wonder corporations will jump at the chance to reduce their risks and costs by transferring them to taxpayers, which is what Uber and others are doing in Arizona with their nascent autonomous vehicle technology.
The difference between many of the government subsidies doled out to corporations and allowing Uber and other businesses to use public roads to test new vehicles’ technology is that this subsidy not only harms taxpayers’ bank accounts, it also puts American lives in jeopardy.
In a bid to attract Uber and other companies to Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order in 2015 permitting companies to test self-driving cars on Arizona’s public roads.
“We needed our message to Uber, Lyft and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to be that Arizona was open to new ideas,” said Ducey about the order.
Ducey’s decision to transform Arizona’s roads into a free training ground for Uber and other companies sure is cheaper for business than forcing them to build costly testing facilities — including in, say, Arizona — to simulate the real-world conditions of vehicle and pedestrian traffic for their self-driving vehicles.
Indeed, it seemed like a win-win situation for the Grand Canyon State and Uber — until an inevitable tragedy on a public road occurred earlier this year in Tempe.
On March 18, an Uber test vehicle for autonomous driving struck a woman crossing a road at night with her bicycle. Uber immediately suspended all driverless vehicle testing.
Then Ducey updated his executive order in what spokesman Daniel Scarpinato stated “provides enhanced enforcement measures and clarity on responsibility in these accidents.”
Sorry Ducey and Uber executives, this decision is too little, too late.
States shouldn’t be afraid of innovation and creating business-friendly environments, but the Arizona situation is different.
Here, Arizona’s policymakers chose to make the welfare of a powerful business, Uber, a higher priority than the safety of its citizens, turning the state’s roads into a testing grounds for unproven technology so corporations can reduce their R&D costs and increase their bottom lines.
Innovation is a pillar of capitalism, and the United States is the world’s leader in technology because it has historically been an incubator for entrepreneurial innovation.
But businesses must be responsible for their own R&D costs. And governments should hold corporations accountable when their products are released to the public without being safe.
Uber, as well as other companies such as Lyft and Waymo, should bite the bullet and build their own advanced testing facilities for self-driving vehicles — just like all of the world’s major automakers.
Once deemed safe in their own controlled settings, they could then pay private landowners to use their roads until the technology is fully ready for the public.
Until it is manifestly clear self-driving vehicles are safe, states shouldn’t let this or any other emerging technology that poses a societal threat be tested on public grounds.
However, once evidence demonstrates autonomous cars and other future transportation technologies are reasonably safe, states should not enact roadblocks to stifle innovation.
Driverless cars are the future. It’s coming. But they should not be coming to a road near you, and certainly not near any pedestrians, until these companies complete the necessary safety tests on their own dime — not taxpayers.′
Chris Talgo is an editorial assistant at The Heartland Institute.