Tesla provides an autopilot that allows its cars to drive themselves in certain circumstances. Recently, while on autopilot, a Tesla car crashed and killed the driver. The autopilot apparently did not distinguish between a white tractor-trailer and a brightly lit sky in the background of the trailer. The driver is rumored to have been looking at a movie, against the express mandate that a driver using the autopilot keep his hands on the steering wheel.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating the crash, and the government is now considering how to regulate autopilots. I fear that if regulators aren’t careful, they may kill more people than they save. The basic problem is that first recognized by the great French economist Frederic Bastiat. People too often consider effects that can be seen, but not those that are invisible. Here the focus is likely to be on lives lost by the autopilot, often in fiery crashes that get attention. But lives may be saved as well by its introduction and these lives will receive almost no attention. Statically, the current autopilot itself may save some lives. Dynamically, permitting autopilots may lead to faster improvement in self-driving cars that may save more lives in the future. There are a lot of such lives to be saved. More than 30,000 people die each year in car crashes in the United States, and most such crashes are caused by driver error.
This problem is compounded by the prism though which government bureaucrats view regulation.