Drones, Driverless Cars, and A.I.

The robots are coming! Advances in machine learning and automation are ushering in a new era of digital workers. In the near future, drones, driverless cars, and artificial intelligence will seamlessly coordinate and transport goods and people across the globe for very little cost. But first, we need to get our policies right.

Drones, also known as “unmanned aerial systems” or UASs, are poised to become ubiquitous in coming decades. Drones are projected to provide enormous productivity gains and cost savings in agricultural output, product delivery, and journalism and data gathering, as well as to provide another exciting outlet as a good old-fashioned consumer hobby.

“Autonomous vehicles” or “driverless cars” are automotive technologies that permit automobiles to operate without human assistance. Driverless cars are expected to dramatically reduce the number of highway deaths and injuries while lowering the costs of shipping and transportation. Autonomous vehicles can also be used in manufacturing and warehouse capacities to improve speed and efficiency while lowering human injury and costs.

Technologies that employ artificial intelligence or automation techniques can rouse pronounced anxieties among policymakers and consumers. But smart technologies require smart regulations. Policymakers should take care to craft and maintain a flexible system that deals with real problems rather than hypothetical ones.

You can find more Mercatus research and commentary on drones, driverless cars, and AI below.


Make America Boom Again: How to Bring Back Supersonic Transport
Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond
October 27, 2016

In 1973, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned civil supersonic flight over the United States, stymieing the development of a supersonic aviation industry. Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond show that it is time to revisit the ban. Better technology—including better materials, engines, and simulation capabilities—mean it is now possible to produce a supersonic jet that is more economical and less noisy than those of the 1970s. It is time to rescind the ban in favor of a more modest and sensible noise standard.

Airport Noise NIMBYism: An Empirical Investigation
Eli Dourado and Raymond Russell
October 17, 2016

Hostility to municipal expansion, known as “NIMBYism” (for “not in my backyard”-ism), can be a barrier to denser development, lower housing prices, and ultimately economic growth. But NIMBYism extends beyond opposition to urban development, and its consequences can hinder economic growth in nonobvious ways.

In a policy brief for the Mercatus Center, Eli Dourado and Raymond Russell explore a particular category of NIMBY complaint surrounding airport noise. Airport noise can be a nuisance, but it is also necessary for economic activity in the modern world. The authors evaluate noise complaint data from a selection of US airports to quantify opposition to airport noise. They find that the source of airport noise complaints is highly concentrated in a few dedicated complainers.

For example, at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), one single household accounted for a stunning 78 percent of all noise complaints in 2015. The two individuals in this household alone contacted DCA 6,852 times that year, which works out to about 19 calls per day. The report presents similar data on airports around the country, and argues that a noisy but tiny portion of the population that should not unilaterally drive aviation policy.

Integrating Drones into the US Air Traffic Control System
Randall G. Holcombe
October 12, 2016

One of the challenges that comes with the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles—also known as drones—is integrating them into the air traffic control (ATC) system so that they do not conflict with other aircraft. The flight rules that govern drones will play an important role in determining the use of this promising technology.

A study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University provides an overview of current Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the aviation technology that could help drones integrate into the current ATC system. The study proposes a “free flight” system that, when aided by technology, would allow drones to fly both safely and efficiently. Such a system could potentially be extended to conventional aircraft as well.

Do Consumer Drones Endanger the National Airspace? Evidence from Wildlife Strike Data
Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond
March 14, 2016

In December 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a new interim final rule that for the first time imposed regulation on the operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as model aircraft. In the name of a safe national airspace, the new regulations require operators of drones weighing more than 250g (0.55 pounds) to register with the agency.

Yet many drones weighing more than 250g are little more than toys. Do they really pose a risk to the airspace? To explore this question, we examine 25 years of data from the FAA’s wildlife strike database. Although aircraft collide with birds many thousands of times per year, only a tiny fraction of those collisions result in damage to the aircraft, much less human injuries or deaths. The most serious reported incidents typically involved flocks of large birds. Since the addition of UAS to the airspace is similar in many respects to an increase in the bird population, we conclude that the risk to the airspace caused by small drones (for example, weighing up to 2kg, or 4.41 pounds) flying in solitary formation is minimal.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers, and the Future of “Drone Journalism”
Avery E. Holton, Sean Lawson, and Cynthia D. Love
December 2014

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as “drones,” have gained media attention over the last several years with much of the focus centering on their military uses and their emerging role in newsgathering. News organizations, journalists, and private citizens have employed UAVs to capture and share breaking news, to provide glimpses of natural disasters that would otherwise be too hazardous for journalists to obtain, and to offer unique perspectives that enrich news storytelling. At the same time, media scholars have emphasized the need to better understand the privacy and ethical concerns surrounding UAVs. Legal restrictions to and implications of their use have been relatively unexplored. Given that evolving rules and regulations put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may ground UAVs for journalistic purposes, it is important to understand what those legal barriers are and what they mean for the future of UAVs as tools for journalism. This paper advances by noting key benefits UAVs offer journalism before explicating the evolving rules and regulations of the FAA and how those are shaping the use of UAVs for journalism by private citizens, journalists, and news organizations.

Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars
Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann
September 17, 2014

This paper addresses some of the early policy concerns about “connected cars” and driverless vehicles and promotes “bottom-up” solutions to ensure that innovation continues to flourish in this space. The authors argue that the generally unabated advancement of intelligent-vehicle technology will produce significant economic and social benefits. Various technical and policy barriers to more widespread adoption remain, however, and misguided regulation could delay or curtail the adoption of this important technology. This paper outlines ways of overcoming those hurdles. The authors also argue that policymakers should keep in mind that individuals have gradually adapted to similar disruptions in the past and, therefore, patience and humility are needed when considering policy for intelligent-vehicle systems.

Projecting the Growth and Impact of the Internet of Things
Adam Thierer and Andrea Castillo
June 2015

This summary provides a brief explanation of Internet of Things (“IoT”) technologies before describing the current projections of the economic and technological impacts that IoT could have on society. In addition to creating massive gains for consumers, IoT is projected to provide dramatic improvements in manufacturing, health care, energy, transportation, retail services, government, and general economic growth. Poorly considered policies should not prevent us from reaping these enormous benefits.

Public Comment and Testimony

Comment on the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy
Adam Thierer and Caleb Watney
December 5, 2016

“Every single death on our roadways is a tragedy,” NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind noted recently. “We can prevent them. Our drive toward zero deaths is more than just a worthy goal. It is the only acceptable goal.”

We agree. Zero fatalities on our roads is a noble goal. But the length of time it takes to reach that goal is just as important as the goal itself. We are concerned that NHTSA’s proposed policy for automated vehicles may inadvertently increase the number of total automobile fatalities by delaying the rapid development and diffusion of this life-saving technology.

Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence
Adam Thierer and Andrea Castillo
July 2016

We write here to comment on the appropriate policy framework for artificial intelligence (AI) technologies at this nascent stage of their development and to make the case for prudence, patience, and a continuing embrace of “permissionless innovation.” Permissionless innovation refers to the idea that “experimentation with new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default. Unless a compelling case can be made that a new invention will bring serious harm to society, innovation should be allowed to continue unabated and problems, if they develop at all, can be addressed later.”

Creating an Environment of Permissionless Innovation for Unmanned Aircraft
Testimony before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Eli Dourado
March 2016

We must, to the maximum extent possible, treat airspace with a very light regulatory touch. A regime of “permissionless innovation,” in which there is a default position of “innovation allowed,” will allow us to reap the greatest gains from unmanned systems. I urge every member of this committee to set aside the fearmongering that accompanies every new technology and embrace the possibilities for innovation and economic growth that commercial drones provide.

Registration and Marking Requirements for Small Unmanned Aircraft
Comment to the Federal Aviation Administration
Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond
January 2016

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an interim final rule creating a new electronic registration system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and requiring, for the first time, the registration of model aircraft operators. This comment highlights an omission in the agency’s alternative scenario analysis, questions some of the purported benefits of the rule, and points out some of the continuing legal shortcomings associated with the FAA’s approach. While the authors support the advent of a simple and streamlined registration system, they object to the extension of the registration requirement to model aircraft operators.

Clarification of the Applicability of Aircraft Registration Requirements for Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Comment to the Federal Aviation Administration
Eli Dourado and Samuel Hammond
November 2015

The Department of Transportation (DOT) is proposing to implement a national registration system for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs), the details of which are to be recommended by a task force no later than November 20. The stated aim of the registry is to assist in identifying owners and operators of UASs that violate the law and endanger safety, thereby closing a perceived gap in enforcement. This comment highlights several major procedural concerns, followed by an examination of whether the safety benefits of a registry are likely to outweigh the societal and budgetary costs.

Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Comment to the Federal Aviation Administration
Eli Dourado, Ryan Hagemann, and Adam Thierer
April 2015

This public interest comment explains why the FAA’s proposed rules fail to consider all of the benefits of UASs and are an exercise in overly precautionary thinking. Rather than worry about hypothetical harms with relatively low risk, government policy should encourage what is known as “permissionless innovation.” While other countries around the world are already benefiting from unmanned aircraft technology, the FAA’s proposed rules will not allow such innovation to flourish in this country, to the detriment of consumers and the American economy.

Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft
Comment to the Federal Aviation Administration
Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann
September 2014

This comment discusses the need for the agency to conduct a thorough review of the benefits and costs associated with this rule. The authors argue this is essential because airspace is poised to become a major platform for innovation if the agency strikes the right balance between safety and innovation. To achieve that goal, the authors stress the need for flexibility and humility in interpreting older standards, such as “line of sight” restrictions, as well as increasingly archaic “noncommercial” vs. “commercial” distinctions or “hobbyists” vs. “professional” designations.

Unmanned Aircraft Test Site Program
Comment to the Federal Aviation Administration
Jerry Brito, Eli Dourado, and Adam Thierer
April 2013

The FAA’s proposed privacy requirements for test range operators address concerns about hypothesized impositions on individual privacy. In view of the importance of “permissionless innovation” for the development of airspace as a platform for commercial and social entrepreneurship, this comment argues that the FAA should not impose any additional privacy rules for UAS Test Sites, for four reasons. First, the FAA does not have the authority to impose such requirements. Second, there is no evidence of a materialized harm that calls out for the proposed privacy requirements for test range operators. Third, as the proposed privacy requirements make clear, there already exist “federal, state, and other laws regarding the protection of an individual’s right to privacy.” Fourth, adequate time should be afforded for the development of nongovernmental privacy protection mechanisms



Elon Musk’s AI Technopanic
Andrea O’Sullivan on Plain Text
July 17, 2017

Robots Don’t Get Drunk or Drowsy, So Why Hold up Driverless Cars?
Adam Thierer and Caleb Watney in The Hill
July 14, 2017

10 Takeaways about Connected Car Privacy and Security
Adam Thierer on Plain Text
Jun 26, 2017

The Day the Machines Took Over
Adam Thierer
May 11, 2017

The Growing AI Technopanic
Adam Thierer on Above Intelligent
April 27, 2017

Smarter Cars: A Conversation with Adam Thierer
Adam Thierer on Smarter Cars
April 1, 2017

Every Day Matters with Driverless Cars
Adam Thierer at The Hill
October 20, 2016

Tech Expert Adam Thierer On Liability And Autonomous Vehicles
Adam Thierer at Fuse
June 21, 2016

When the Trial Lawyers Come for the Robot Cars
Adam Thierer at Slate
June 10, 2016

The FAA Is Constantly Thwarting Innovation
Eli Dourado at Slate
February 17, 2016

The Government Is Rushing out an Ill-Conceived Plan to Regulate Consumer Drones
Eli Dourado at Vox
November 12, 2015

A DMV for Drones? Inside the FAA’s Clumsy Push to Regulate Flying Computers
Andrea Castillo at Reason
November 10, 2015

Will Robots Take Our Jobs?”
Andrea Castillo at Reason
March 3, 2015

Don’t Slam the Brakes on Driverless Cars
Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann at U.S. News and World Report
December 1, 2014

Intelligent vehicles could save lives
Adam Thierer and Ryan Hagemann at the Orange County Register
November 26, 2014

The next Internet-like platform for innovation? Airspace. (Think Drones)”
Eli Dourado at WIRED
April 23, 2013