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Why Self-Driving Cars Can’t Happen in the U.S. Right Now

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous VehiclesGov. Brown Signs Legislation At Google HQ That Allows Testing Of Autonomous Vehicles
A Google self-driving car at the company's headquarters.Photograph by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

In the past few years, cars that drive themselves have gone from science fiction to road ready. Buoyed by investments from the likes of Google and General Motors (GM) (and maybe Tesla), autonomous vehicles are overcoming a series of technological obstacles like snow and safety.

But there is one obstacle that even the best technology can’t overcome: the U.S. political system.

According to Bradley Tusk, a longtime political fixer for Uber, there are thousand of governments within the United States—in cities, counties, and state—that have authority to regulate vehicles. And unless all of them cooperate, even the best driverless cars may be mostly useless because they would be able to travel only a few miles before reaching a banned zone.

“Every town, county and state has its own rules around driving. If you have to do it town-by-town, autonomous vehicles will never work,” said Tusk, who now runs a firm helping startups navigate regulation, told Fortune in an interview.

He believes the only way to, well, pave the way for driverless cars is for the federal government to step in and write some uniform rules. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of that happening any time soon.

According to Tusk, the state of dysfunction in the capital has reached a point where even commonsense bipartisan laws are out of reach. “The failure of Washington to be even vaguely functional has a bigger impact on the tech sector than most people realize,” he said.

While the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is preparing guidelines for self-driving cars, the state of California is also pushing rules opposed by Google(GOOG) and others.

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So is there any hope of a federal solution? Not right now. But Tusk, who was campaign manager for former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, thinks the next election could bring a political realignment that might solve some of the gridlock. Specifically, he can envision Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Rep. Paul Ryan (W-Wis) working together to pass new vehicle legislation.

Meanwhile, Tusk says his startup clients are also pre-occupied with labor law issues, and the need to create a system of portable benefits for contract workers at companies like Uber and Handy. But to do so will require legislation to change the federal tax code and create a third category of worker beyond employees and contractors.

Alas, any proposed labor law would be an ideological tripwire, making its passage an even greater long-shot than a law for autonomous vehicles.