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Autonomous Cars Will Probably Hit China First -- And That's Okay

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The founders of Google and one of their autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids

The founders of Google and one of their autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids

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Here's what we know about autonomous cars:

A. They're coming.

B. They'll wreak havoc among automakers, with upstarts like Google emerging as viable competitors.

C. They'll have an effect on related sectors, too -- like auto insurance

What we don't know about autonomous cars is when they'll arrive in showrooms, or when they'll become dominant on roadways. However, Detroit News suggests that Americans may not be the first folks on Planet Earth to slip behind those high-tech wheels. That honor has a good chance of going to China.

Even though much of the work being done on autonomous vehicles has been carried out in the U.S., experts on a panel recently hosted by the Automotive Press Association seemed to think that China was a better fit for self-driving vehicles. It's not just because of China's rapidly growing auto market (though that certainly plays a role). It's also because of legal obstacles facing autonomous vehicles in the U.S. -- namely:

  • There are plenty of U.S. state and federal laws and regulations that autonomous cars can't meet. Often, that's because such laws were drafted before anyone even dreamed that self-driving vehicles would become a reality. Autonomous car manufacturers will have to meet those standards or lobby for their amendment. (We're seeing similar problems arise with adjacent technology, like self-adjusting high-beams.)  
  • Americans are litigious. There's still a lot of gray area when it comes to autonomous cars. For example, when an autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision, who's at fault? The broader those gray areas are and the longer they persist, the more vulnerable automakers are to lawsuits and the more risk manufacturers take in bringing their products to the U.S. market. 

China doesn't have these problems -- or at least, not to the degree that we do in America. Considering the country's looser regulations and its booming number of car buyers, debuting autonomous vehicles in China seems like a no-brainer for automakers.

OUR TAKE

Someone wiser than us once said, "Better safe than sorry." 

We don't follow that rule to a tee ourselves, and we know it doesn't always make for good business. In fact, getting ahead in the world often involves taking risks.

However, America's slow-but-steady approach to cars has served us well. Even with extensive regulations, we've managed to remain one of the world's most important auto markets. And thanks to those same regulations, we now enjoy record-low fatality rates. (Even with upticks projected for 2012.)  

America is forever trying to walk a fine line between too much regulation and not enough of it. And despite some very vocal folks at the extreme edges of those arguments, we do a pretty good job of striking a balance. 

To see what can happen when that's not the case, look to Brazil, which has an auto fatality rate four times as high as we do in the U.S.:

The culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for U.S. and European consumers, say experts and engineers inside the industry. Four of Brazil's five bestselling cars failed their independent crash tests.

That's not to say that China is completely unregulated. However, widespread car ownership is still fairly new in China, and as a result, current regulations don't generally measure up to standards in other countries where cars have been middle-class mainstays for generations.

And of course, there's China's legal system to consider, which hasn't always sided with consumers when it's come to flawed products. Nor has the Chinese public always had the means or will to file lawsuits against giant corporations. Though we complain about the abundance of such suits in America, they've helped regulate the market.

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, America is probably better off following another time-honored saying: "Slow and steady wins the race".

[h/t John Voelcker]

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