If you are anything like millions of other Americans you have bought something over the Internet. A world of wares is there for us to browse at just the click of a mouse and tap of a keyboard. And although it is in some respects virtually the same process we (or our parents for the younger among us) engaged in when we browsed print catalogs not that many years ago, it is also a vast improvement over that older, static, process. Information is updated in real time. We can make buying decisions based on the reviews and feedback of other consumers. We can instantly compare prices and options among several vendors. In short, the Internet has not simply repackaged an old process in some techy guise; it has made a material improvement that has added value (that is, time) to all of our lives.
However, one aspect of the ordering process has not changed in over 170 years (Tiffany’s Blue Book, published in 1845 was the first mail-order catalogue in the US) and that is the delivery process. Yes, it has gotten faster (with the advent of air delivery) but the core process is the same: the order changes hands multiple times from human to human as it moves through the delivery pipeline. To be fair, this process is far more enviable than the alternative of picking up the order yourself. In fact one of the rarely noted benefits of bulk delivery is the prevention of accidental death. If every person who has ever ordered something had to go and pick the order up themselves the cost in time and hence productivity is incalculable. But the cost in lives would be calculable to a degree, given the fact that for a certain number of miles driven there will be a certain number of motor vehicle fatalities. All things being equal, without delivery, more people would certainly have died.
Today, after 170 years following one delivery model we are on the cusp of switching to a new delivery model: the drone. Amazon.com has been experimenting with what they call “Prime Air”, that is, direct delivery of your Amazon order, by drone, to your doorstep within hours of placing the order. Amazing! Forget Marty McFly’s 2015 hover board – this is even cooler! But, you knew there was a “but” coming, the FAA will have none of that. Last week they proposed a new set of regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) (that only apply to private business naturally; we can’t have these rules standing in the way of government users). Among some of the more onerous rules that would all but quash Amazon’s plans include: “The operator must remain within visual line of sight of the drone” and “They can only operate in the daylight and under 500 feet”. These proposed regulations are driven more by fear of the unknown than by any rational concern over safety. It’s like they never got the point of the old college essay primer: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” Hint: the point is to let the ship sail so that its potential may be realized.
If these proposed rules are implemented there will be an unseen cost, one that I’m surprised a supposedly “must save lives” utilitarian-mindset entity like the FAA is apparently oblivious to. Were drone delivery of packages permitted it would save roughly 100 lives per year in the United States alone due to the decreased mileage of delivery vehicles (based on my own estimates, see gregmorin.com). And that is only for Amazon deliveries. When other companies begin to deploy the same technology the potential for saving lives only rises further.
Internet commerce, that is, the free market, through its endeavoring to improve our lives has also managed to save many of them. Let’s not forget that lesson as we look toward the future.