Laws Can Spur Innovation [...]

Why did Adler’s automatic speed-control system fail? The technology seemed to work, although we can easily imagine its imperfections. What would happen if the device on the car malfunctioned, for example? And what would prevent drivers from simply disabling it? But the barriers to Adler’s system were not primarily technical. What ultimately doomed it was the lack of laws and governmental organizations to mandate the system’s use.

On 3 February 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. agency created in 1966 to oversee car safety standards, announced that it was considering requiring vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technologies on all cars sold in the United States. “This technology would improve safety by allowing vehicles to ‘talk’ to each other and ultimately avoid many crashes altogether,” the press release announcing the decision stated. Since then, the agency has worked steadily to promote the technology and the regulation that would make such systems a reality. Many automotive experts believe that the logical next steps after V2V communication will be smart roads and autonomous vehicles, such as Google’s self-driving cars.

Tech companies and carmakers are working hard to bring about this automotive future. And yet, when that future arrives, it will largely be because of federal laws, first passed in the 1960s, that controlled automotive design and highway construction. While today’s carmakers introduce new safety technologies—airbags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control, rearview backup cameras—into luxury lines as sellable features, typically federal action is needed to push such technologies into all new vehicles. Such laws did not exist in Adler’s day. He was indeed ahead of his time, but as his case so poignantly shows, the success of an innovation often depends as much on the quality of our institutions as it does on the quality of the technology itself. (Source)

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