California is home to Silicon Valley, some of the world’s top research universities and of Waymo, the recently spun-off self-driving vehicle arm of the search giant Google. Yet when it came to deploying its most advanced autonomous technologies, the California company had no choice but to cast its gaze eastward to Arizona — where its vision was not illegal.
The reasoning behind Waymo’s deployment decision was simple: California opted for an overly prescriptive approach to regulating technological innovation. The state’s regulatory process simply too slow for it to capitalize on its seemingly insurmountable natural advantages.
It speaks volumes that, as Waymo’s vans pick up and drop off passengers in suburban Phoenix, only now, more than five years after California passed enabling legislation, is the state Department of Motor Vehicles coming to the end of a rulemaking process that will allow autonomous vehicles to be deployed on the Golden State’s roads.
Lest there be any confusion, it’s important to note that while California is coming to the end of its regulatory process, it’s not actually there yet. If Waymo had attempted to do what it did in Arizona on the roads outside its Bay Area offices, it would have been in violation of state law.
The optics of this are bad for a state that fancies itself a world leader in innovation. While there is plenty of blame that should be directed at California’s regulators for failing to finalize regulations that were due New Year’s Day 2015, a larger flaw permeates how public policy in California operates. The state’s policymakers do not presume that most innovations should be permitted; quite the opposite.
Back in 2012, when it came time to address the question of regulating a poorly understood and highly promising technology, California not only pursued more constraints, but elected to cement them in statute. Of course, there is no problem with a political body actually legislating — a lesson Congress may one day learn — but there is a problem with presuming that just about any activity is barred until a law or regulation is passed expressly to permit it.
In the case of self-driving vehicles, at the time California enacted S.B. 1298, there was no federal prohibition on testing or deploying autonomous vehicles, just as there isn’t today. Likewise, there was no California state law on the matter at all.
Sacramento seized on the silence from federal regulators as a reason to bundle permission with regulation. State legislators advanced a statutory framework for autonomous vehicles that called for onerous reporting requirements, lengthy review deadlines and a challenging rulemaking charge for the state’s bureaucrats.
Meanwhile, down in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s aggressively pro-growth administration issued an executive order to encourage self-driving vehicles, with only the barest necessary constraints on how they may be deployed. Since then, predictably, developers have flocked to the state.
None of this means that California is down and out, or that Arizona is above making regulatory missteps. Rather, it’s a lesson in the real cost of caution. By opting nominally to protect its residents from an imagined threat, California policymakers delayed when they would be able to enjoy this groundbreaking technology’s safety and environmental benefits.
Advanced self-driving technologies will eventually make their way to California consumers. But as a resident of the Golden State, I can’t help but think that we, not Arizona, should have been first to enjoy these particular minivans. Some fellow Californians may scoff at the idea, but if being first really is meaningless, California might do well to reconsider its outsized rhetoric about its leadership in the nation and the world.