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Can self-driving cars navigate around politicians?

A Google self-driving car is seen on display  Wednesday, May 18, 2016, at Google's I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A Google self-driving car is seen on display Wednesday, May 18, 2016, at Google's I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg, AP

If people today share a common belief about what life will be like in the future, it is that we won’t be driving our own cars.

Mine may be the first generation that actually looks forward to the many doctor visits that accompany old age, simply because my car will take me to the door, go park itself, and then return, all air conditioned or heated, when I again summon it.

But if politicians and government regulators don’t get out of the way, the future may take a lot longer to get here than anyone expects, and I could be navigating parking lots with a walker.

In the latest issue of Reason magazine, science correspondent Ronald Bailey outlines how the self-driving revolution might unfold. If Google is right and autonomous cars are ready by 2020, an initial run of 100,000 such cars, used mostly by ride-sharing services, would increase to 6.4 million by 2026 and 50 million by 2029. Prices would drop as production increases. Many people would learn to prefer ride sharing services to actual ownership, given wait times of a minute or less.

But if 50 states adopt 50 different sets of laws and regulations, some of which make development of these cars almost impossible, whoa Nellie! We’ll still be sitting behind the wheel in rush-hour traffic well into the ’20s and beyond.

Already, six states and the District of Columbia have passed laws concerning these cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But in the past two years, almost half the states have considered bills forcing further regulations.

These range from the silly to the cumbersome. A recent New York Daily News story reports that a 1971 law still requires each driver to keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times. That made perfect sense 45 years ago. Today it makes modern parking-assist features illegal, not to mention tomorrow’s cars without steering wheels. And yet lawmakers in the State Assembly remain reluctant to change.

In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles released a 22-page draft of regulations requiring steering wheels, pedals and a licensed driver in the front seat. There go my dreams of comfy old-age trips to the doctor.

Reason quotes self-driving pioneer Brad Templeton sarcastically reacting to this by saying, “We don’t understand this, so let’s not allow it until we do understand it.”

The auto industry would like Washington to write the rules, thus avoiding a confusing array of state laws. That sounds logical, even to this longtime proponent of states’ rights, until you begin to look at the fine print.

For example, the Obama administration wants to fund a massive vehicle-to-infrastructure system, in which cars communicate with smart roads about conditions. Others want the cars to talk to each other with special software.

Templeton told Reason the government’s ideas already are obsolete. Keeping roads dumb would push innovators to create safer cars.

But keeping politicians dumb, and mute, is a much more difficult challenge.

Reason actually points to Utah as an example of how to do things. Here, lawmakers have decided only to study which legal obstacles they need to remove and which regulatory laws make sense. They also have modified tailgating laws to allow for these cars to be tested.

Other states are not as smart. Politicians have a natural urge to want to protect constituents. Sometimes they also have urges to protect jobs by inhibiting competition. Bailey cites a 1991 study by the National Economic Research Associates that estimates cellphones could have been widely used in 1973 if the FCC had moved out of the way of regulators.

The beauty of automobiles, radios and many other early inventions, is that they were allowed to flourish with a minimum of regulations getting in the way. The Census Bureau says the nation went from 8,000 cars in 1900 to 20 million by 1925. In 1920, only a few thousand people owned radio sets, but by 1930, 60 percent of households had one.

Here’s hoping that by the time I’m eating prescriptions every day, smart cars will have learned how to dodge every obstacle, including meddlesome politicians.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.