Peter Landry is a principal at Enterprise Canada, a leading public affairs firm with expertise in transportation and innovation.
There has been much media and water-cooler talk about Uber as a disruptive force in the transportation world, and rightly so. Uber has provided a great service – not only to taxi-weary folks but also to lovers of disruption everywhere. Viva La Revolución! While Uber is the current poster child for the great divide between regulators and leading technology, it is only one example of the increasing challenge for legislators to keep pace with change. This is not a phenomenon to be taken lightly. It can put the brakes on technology that offers real societal and environmental benefits.
The much-heralded driverless car has the potential to increase traffic safety and reduce fuel consumption. Are governments ready? They may argue that they are, but past record shows they will lag even to the point of stopping all things progressive dead in their tracks.
Currently, intelligent traffic systems that are available are stalled because of old-school government thinking. For example, in Canada, we still rely on pre-disco era truck weigh stations that require drivers to pull in for inspections. This not only wastes driver time, but also increases risk to other drivers as the trucks pull back on to the highway. It also causes millions of litres of fuel to be burned during the process. Better options exist, but archaic regulations do not allow them.
And it's not just futuristic technology that government needs to anticipate. The truth is that there is well-established hardware and software that remains ahead of the rules. For instance, only recently have we been catching up with cellphones and regulations relating to distracted driving. Never mind that our cars are quickly turning into mobile offices and, gasp, entertainment centres.
Different from Uber and intelligent traffic systems, this lack of foresight and synchronicity is not limited to efficiency – it's a matter of life and death – and there have already been grave consequences. Although cellphone technology (including the dreaded texting) has been around for years, decision-makers have been reactive instead of pro-active. This has effectively caused a distracted-driving epidemic that has resulted in thousands of injuries and deaths.
Aside from distracted drivers possessing a severe lack of common sense and blatant disregard for people's lives, it's hard to place all of the blame on them. The drag in policy implementation has allowed society to grow accustomed to using cellphones while driving. Like they say, old habits die hard.
This in all likelihood could have been prevented, had government – and even those responsible for developing technology – done a better job of planning ahead and bracing for the potential impacts. Crazy as it sounds, there are times when the public and private sector must work together.
Innovators also have to change their approach. It's easy to point fingers at governments. It's harder to do a little looking in the mirror and ask the question about what the private sector has done to achieve a better equilibrium between the rules and the technology.
Even Uber, which is active in the public policy arena, ironically takes an old-school approach to government relations. But at least Uber is in the game. Technology innovators have the brains to invent things that amaze us. Yet they can be, ummm, senseless when it comes to helping governments pave the regulatory road.
Here are a few tips: align with government priorities; know the players both political and bureaucratic; engage the public (read voters) in a positive manner (i.e. threats and hysteria do not work); include government relations in your business planning.
And no there is no app for any of this.