Does a week go by without news of federal bureaucrats extending their tentacles of authority over more of society?
A few weeks ago, Uber was upsetting government regulators. The ride-sharing company is providing such great service to consumers that existing taxi companies called upon the government to help. Shortly after I wrote that column, the attorney general of Virginia issued a cease-and-desist order to the company.
There was no allegation of misbehavior or dangerous practices. The bureaucratic order simply said the rules don’t allow Uber to operate.
Also earlier this month it was the Environmental Protection Agency, announcing its plan to introduce on its own the carbon dioxide limits that Congress specifically rejected. Then it was the Food and Drug Administration, insinuating itself into the centuries-old process of aging cheese. Last week it was the IRS trying to shed at last the inconvenience of congressional oversight.
Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is claiming sweeping authority over our smartphones, asserting the right to approve any software that might be used in a car.
This sort of cultural clash between technology companies committed to serving consumers and regulators committed to protecting the status quo will become increasingly common in the coming years. Just as technology is reinventing everything from journalism to cars, the industry will also reinvent regulation.
What’s especially challenging for government regulators in this transition is that they can’t hide behind a claim that their rules benefit consumers. After Virginia tried to shut Uber down, the company sent a message to its customers highlighting its commitment to stricter standards than the government requires.
If these regulations are approved, it would likely make the smartphone the first object ever to be regulated both as a medical device and as a piece of motor vehicle equipment. Yet surprising as it may seem to consumers, the matter is clear to NHTSA regulators, who “maintain that they already have the authority over navigation aids and merely want it clearly written into law,” according to The New York Times.
NHTSA, the Times reports, believes that apps like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze pose threats to highway safety that entitle the agency to demand changes to their user interfaces — matters which are far outside the auto regulator’s zone of expertise.
Under the same principle, of course, NHTSA’s control could soon creep beyond the navigation apps. Any software that might theoretically be used while driving could fall under the agency’s regulatory powers: music applications, news alerts and e-mail notifications, even the phone function itself could be construed as threats to highway safety. What’s next? Atlases? AAA maps? Printed directions? Coffee cups from the McDonald’s drive-through?
NHTSA has already pushed car manufacturers to adopt “voluntary” regulatory standards for their in-car navigation systems, but technology companies have not been so willing to hand federal regulators the keys to one of their core products.
If they’re smart, companies like Google and Apple will fight to keep it that way. They should not accept the position of “Mother-may-I” permission on that. Subjecting every Google Maps update and fast-food app to this kind of prison-guard behavior would be an enormous blow to a thriving area of innovation.
So, Uber provides a better service that is more convenient for its customers and maintains higher safety standards. What’s not to like? Other than competing taxi companies and drivers who may not pass the company’s background check, everyone comes out ahead.
What’s especially interesting is Uber’s commitment to dramatically exceed the safety requirements imposed by the state of Virginia. This challenges the core worldview of those who believe that only government regulation can force companies to behave.
The pace of innovation in smartphones is so fast, in fact, that it is solving many of the safety concerns NHTSA raises before the agency even gets around to regulating the technology — and there is no chance the bureaucrats will ever keep up. Their “voluntary” guidelines require each interaction with the software to take two seconds or less. But on the latest Android phones, users can simply say, without taking their hands off the wheel, “OK Google, navigate to McDonald’s on 108th Street in Omaha, Nebraska.” This takes longer than two seconds but is far safer than anything NHTSA’s rules imagine.
People who hold this view, including many regulators, believe companies like Uber are unregulated and potentially dangerous.
I guess it’s time to contact your members of Congress today and tell them to keep bureaucrats’ hands off our smartphones.