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Other countries are ‘beating’ the US to fully driverless cars. Let them.

Singapore has announced that it is the the first country to host a fully self-driving taxi, powered by a totally real-sounding startup called nuTonomy, which came out of MIT earlier this year and raised several million in investor funding. The actual event is just a little pilot project based in a “business park” that’s only about two square kilometers to a side, but to hear the world’s tech press tell it, this could well be the beginning of the end for America’s global dominance — or at least Uber’s. Singapore is “beating” Uber, or so they say, and by extension the US is supposed to have lost something important, as well.

In principle, there are only a few reasons to consider getting upset about a plan like this. There’s the case in which this research will outpace Western knowledge and allow super-advanced competitors that make American car companies look like… American car companies. There’s the case in which the economic advantages of embracing this system lead the country overall to become so efficient that it cuts into the US economy. There’s the case in which this sort of head start will lead to an established foreign corporation that later enters the American market and dominates it with little real competition.

None of these cases is remotely realistic, however, and there’s no reason to view this as anything other than good news — for Singapore, the US, and for the world. Yes, it’s even good for Uber, if not for its overly-ballyhooed wish to be “first.”

It’s worth noting that this pilot project will not charge riders at all, will only include six vehicles in total, and will only pick up and drop off from predetermined spots. For legal reasons each car will have a driver up front to take control if necessary, and a researcher in back to monitor the system’s readouts — talk about awkward. I’d say that Uber can still claim to be shooting for the first commercial self-driving taxi service.

Don’t be cynical about any aspect of this announcement. The world’s first truly self-driving taxi service will roll out later this year; as nuTonomy founder Doug Parker told Reuters, “this is really a moment in history that’s going to change how cities are built, how we really look at our surroundings.”

For once, a startup’s grand claims about the future actually hold water — once the idea of deliberately “navigating” a city no longer applies to trips beyond walking or biking distance, our relationship with the physical world will indeed change dramatically. The idea of a daily “commute” to work is entirely different when you have both hands free the whole time, as does the idea of “driving” to and from a bar for drinks. Not only will vast amounts of parking become open to development, but it seems likely that people’s willingness to explore new places will almost certainly increase as they can more easily move through unexplored parts of the city.

Less congestion, less pollution, less road-related stress… yes, self-driving cars will be quite a revolution. Does it really matter where they take their first test runs?

self driving head

The reason NuTonomy went to Singapore in the first place, and the reason its decision to do so has allowed it to “beat” Uber to the punch with this test stunt, is that the authorities in Singapore decided to let the project to go forward — it’s as simple as that. Like basically all small states these days, it’s trying to triple down on building a thriving, global tech sector. Part of that involves inviting moonshot tech projects to stimulate local business and especially to re-brand the tiny country as a destination for digital nomads. The country “won” the right to host this test mostly by saying “Yes” to a question the American government has traditionally met with red tape.

There’s good reason for that hesitance. Self-driving technology will save countless lives in the long term, but the reality is it will also create real problems for politicians and legislators, and very likely kill a few people along the way. The chances of a fatality are fairly slim in this small business park, where speeds never get too high and you’re less likely to have quickly darting dogs, children, and drunks, but we can’t expect this technology to reach market with a flawless record.

Frankly, I really don’t think Uber should be nearly so eager to have its name associated with early stabs at self-driving taxis. Leave such risky business to the start-ups who actually need to take risks, and play your part as the established business amoeba that just has to wait to gobble up the best stuff. The danger of betting entirely on a lead in technology and mindshare ought to be clear to the industry in which Google has so recently failed to capitalize on its incredible head start in software — remember when self-driving cars were literally called Google Cars? Yeah, neither do most other people.

It might sound a bit cold-hearted, but at the end of the day it’s America’s privilege to let smaller countries host this sort of research, and later sit back and reap the rewards. The pure code breakthroughs made by one self-driving company remain their own, but conceptual breakthroughs end up being used by everybody. Legal case studies can be studied across borders. And nuTonomy’s only realistic way of moving into the US is to partner with or sell to an established American or global corporation. There’s nothing more American than that.

So, be happy. Self-driving cars are getting closer every day, partly in terms of technology but more importantly in terms of public and political will. And while there’s no real reason to be upset at this “loss,” if such stories create a sort of nationalist indignation and prompt more domestic investment in the research, that’s all the better.

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