When I read The Federal Government Must Act To Ensure That The Autonomous Vehicle Revolution Takes Place In The U.S. on Techcrunch this morning my first reaction was to be happy that the UK government is making concerted efforts to attract Google’s self-driving car research to the UK. If they succeed then high value jobs will be created here, opportunities in related areas are more likely to be pursued here (e.g. car security) and the UK could become the home of the autonomous car industry. Indeed, the point of the Techcrunch article is to say the US government should act to make sure all those wonderful things happen in the US.
The problem with the article, and with my first reaction, is that it only thinks about the benefits of having an indigenous autonomous car industry and not the costs.
The benefits are all money related, and that’s important, but it’s not everything. This line of thought is challenging though. If you ask ask me what I want for my kids when they grow up I will tell you that I want them to be happy. I know they will need a certain amount of money to be happy, but beyond a certain level other things become more important – love, safety, meaningful work, etc. The problem is that money is just about the only metric countries use to keep score. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a money measure, and we watch it like a hawk. Growth figures are reported widely and governments are judged first and foremost on the increase they have delivered.
My friend Nic Marks has long been campaigning for governments to start measuring and targeting themselves on happiness. That makes sense to me, just like it makes sense that happiness is the goal for my kids. However, getting widespread agreement on what constitutes happiness is tricky, which is why GDP is still the focus and why the merits or otherwise of attracting autonomous car research to the UK are debated on financial grounds with safety considerations considered on a binary basis, often with analysis that is emotionally rather than rationally driven. If we had a measure for happiness that combined GDP growth with other factors we would be in a much better place to trade off the economic impact against safety and make this decision properly.