In the June issue of Reason, one of my favorite publications, Greg Beato has an article discussing the public policy implications of autonomous vehicles, such as Google’s Self-Driving Car. While I appreciate libertarians (being one myself) taking this technology seriously, Beato makes a number of questionable assumptions and outright factual errors in the piece. Here’s my quick attempt to address some of them.
Beato begins with obligatory Google-bashing common among techies, who seem to either love Google or despise it. (This is probably too simplistic, but this is how it looks like to a Silicon Valley outsider.) The legal issues with respect to Google’s collection of unprotected Wi-Fi data are complicated from a libertarian perspective, those related to Google’s settlement with the FTC “for bypassing privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser,” as Beato puts it, are not. No one’s privacy was ever violated. All Google was guilty of, as technology policy and privacy analysts here at CEI noted at the time, was
failing to realize a software tweak by Apple rendered one of Google’s help pages inaccurate. There is no evidence that any users were “taken in” or harmed by this inaccurate help page, nor does the FTC allege that Google knew or should’ve known that its help page was wrong. A four-commissioner FTC majority even admitted that Google’s alleged wrongdoing didn’t last very long or earn the company much money.
This is hardly the privacy-invading sin Beato implies it was, but he is obviously setting the stage for his arguments for additional public skepticism of autonomous vehicle technology.
But much of the beginning of the article focuses on the huge potential benefits of vehicle automation, which are large and which we at CEI have highlighted in the past. But at the halfway point, Beato drops this:
But is everyone really so eager to see the automobile, which stands as one of history’s great amplifiers of personal autonomy and liberty, evolve into a giant tracking device controlled by a $250 billion corporation that makes its money through an increasingly intimate and obtrusive knowledge of its customers?
Beato is correct that the automobile is one of the great technological liberators of mankind from the time-consuming drudgery that was previously associated with personal mobility. But the implication that Google is intent on destroying privacy protections by deploying a mobility-enhancing technology is over the top. Autonomous vehicle users in the future, just like users of any digital technology that transmits telemetric data, will be opting in. Google and other potential providers, in turn, will likely be responsive to privacy concerns. The real concern is the ability of law enforcement and other government bodies to access this private information.
But Beato instead makes questionable assumptions regarding technology that is not yet available to consumers, always a dangerous tack to take. For instance, Beato claims, “Even if it were possible to operate the car in some kind of ‘manual’ mode, you would likely still be sending information back to headquarters.” “Even if”? “Likely”? As far as the ability to operate a fully autonomous vehicle manually (i.e., not in autonomous mode), this will be standard. In fact, more than one of the four (not three, as Beato incorrectly states later in the article; they are Nevada, Florida, California, and Washington, D.C.) jurisdictions that recognize the legality of these vehicles (not where they are legalized – more on this in a moment) explicitly requires this feature.
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