The self-driving car could be one of the great innovations of the 21st Century – among the potential benefits are increased safety, energy efficiency and convenience. Major tech companies and automakers are devoting enormous technical resources and billions of dollars to perfecting the technology. Advancements are slowly being incorporated into existing production runs. Already, you can purchase models that feature autonomous driving features.
And now President Obama wants to stick the government’s nose into the effort, to the tune of $3.9 billion of your tax dollars. Google has over $72 billion cash on hand. Ford has nearly $60 billion. These companies are hardly in dire need of a taxpayer subsidy. Besides, the Defense Department has been working on jump-starting the technology for years.
There certainly is a necessary role for the government in regulating self-driving cars and establishing rules of liability. Consider the scenario where a child darts into the street: Does the self-driving car avoid the child and put its passengers at risk? Figuring out how a self-driving car should evaluate lose-lost situations like this will never be left to the engineers at Google. Nor should the public blindly trust the industry to protect self-driving cars from hackers or to assume that all the complex computer coding will be bug-free. Fifty different standards from 50 state won’t due either. Not a single self-driving car will be sold until the ethical and liability issues are determined, and done so on a national basis.
Sorting through the legal, ethical and regulatory difficulties will be a long, arduous and necessary process – and will certainly involve the Federal government. But focusing on this process is just part of what the Obama Administration proposes. What Obama wants to do is also get in the middle of the technology and engineering by subsidizing it, in spite of the fact that the automotive and tech industry has this part well in hand – and can easily afford it.
Why would a President and his administration, who have criticized corporate welfare and have presided over the largest rise in America’s fiscal deficit in history shower nearly $4 billion on an industry that doesn’t need it?
For the same reason they do everything: Control, Ego and Self-Advancement (or is it Greed?).
Control: Directly subsidizing any company brings the government into the decision process. Any federal grant or loan comes with a dizzying array of mandates and restrictions. The combination of the Regulatory State and threatening to withhold subsidies has become the main conduit for social policy in this country. The critical first step is getting an organization, whether it is a local government, a non-profit, or a private enterprise hooked up to the IV-drip of federal dollars.
Ego: Has there been a President more obsessed than his own image as hip and trendy as Barack Obama? Only John F. Kennedy could compare as a popular culture and elitist phenomenon. In contrast to Obama, however, Kennedy was relatively effortless – there was none of the obsessive grasping, nor any appearances on vapid talk shows. Obama craves not just the spotlight, but an image as being in the vanguard of the future. But Obama’s future is whatever is trending on Twitter. Hopping on the self-driving car bandwagon is just something to affirm his own relevance and stoke his own ego.
Self-Advancement: Part and parcel of Obama’s obsession with trendiness is his own Administration’s interest in placing themselves within the tech industry for their own financial advancement. Silicon Valley tech firms have vacuumed up former Obama Administration staffers for their government affairs departments. These companies have seen that companies who thrived in the marketplace can be short-circuited by the government – and that using the coercive power of the federal government can yield big profits. And, the executive staff in the Administration have been eager to enter their service.
Make no mistake, autonomous vehicles could be a revolutionary advancement in transportation. But the fact is that the technology side is moving along just fine without federal funding. The real reasons for Obama’s proposed multibillion dollar subsidy have nothing to do with embracing the future or "jump-starting" a critical technology and everything to do with craven self-promotion and the accumulation of power.