Two news articles in today's Times business section are good illustrations of the same idea — technology moves faster than regulation, and regulation slows the diffusion of technology.
The first example is electric-car maker Tesla's announcement that a remote software update "would give Tesla's Model S sedans the ability to start driving themselves, at least part of the time, in a hands-free mode that the company refers to as autopilot." The Times reports that "some industry experts said serious questions remain about whether such autonomous driving is actually legal and are skeptical that Model S owners who try to use autopilot would not run afoul of current regulations."
The second example is a story about the Federal Aviation Administration finally granting the online retailer Amazon limited approval to test drones for use in delivering packages. The Times reports:
even getting permission to test drones outdoors with a pilot counts as progress for Amazon, which has been lobbying the F.A.A. for approval to do so for months. The company has previously been forced to test drones indoors near its headquarters in Seattle....The type of approval the F.A.A. granted Amazon wasn't the company's first choice. Called an experimental airworthiness certificate, it is normally granted to aerospace companies like Boeing and others that are conducting research and development on new drone technologies.
In a letter to the F.A.A. last December, Paul Misener, the vice president for global public policy at Amazon, said the company had applied for the experimental certificate at the suggestion of the F.A.A., but complained of restrictions that would prevent it from rapidly experimenting.
I can understand a possible good-faith reason for regulatory slowness. People are worried about the dangers of self-driving cars causing accidents, or of drones crashing and damaging property or individuals or interfering with other air traffic. On the other hand, there are other ways to deal with those risks — insurance, the incentives that companies have to avoiding lawsuits and bad publicity. And who has confidence that regulators will actually understand these technologies or set rules for them in a way that makes them safer rather than in a way that provides false senses of security or adds additional expense or complexity?