Public Fear of Autonomous Vehicles: A Problem We Can’t Just Ignore

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Autonomous Vehicles in Fiction

When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have a few English teachers who were interested in dystopian science fiction. Automated vehicle systems weren’t a big topic of conversation in the 90s and 00s. In fact, they weren’t a thing people really talked about at all once Knight Rider went off the air. Other than Knight Rider’s KITT, my first exposure to even the idea of a car that drives itself came from a 1951 short story by Ray Bradbury, called “The Pedestrian.”

The story was set just over 100 years in the future (from 1951), in a society that had retreated indoors every night. Everyone watched TV, and nobody even left their homes after dark. Night after night, the main character goes for walks in the city and, despite doing this for years, never saw another person walking nor did he see a car on the roads. All he’d see are the dark windows of homes he’d walk past, with the flashes of light from their TV sets and the occasional sound of laughter.

One night, he saw the city’s only cop car round the corner and shine a spotlight at him. A voice coming from the car’s PA system demanded to know what he was doing. “Just walking” was not an acceptable answer, and he was ordered to get into the back of the car. As he got out of the spotlight, he could see the car didn’t have any cops inside, and was autonomous. It again ordered him to get into the back seat.

“Where are you taking me?” The car hesitated, or rather gave a faint whirring click, as if information, somewhere, was dropping card by punch-slotted card under electric eyes. “To the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”

As I pointed out, the idea of a robot car that can drive itself wasn’t always bad in fiction. KITT is obviously an example of the technology being used for good, but even Knight Rider explored the bad that an autonomous vehicle could do with KITT’s arch-nemesis, KARR:

Technically Herbie (From The Love Bug and subsequent films) isn’t an autonomous vehicle (AV), as his origins seem to be magical, or possibly some form of accidental emergent artificial intelligence in a machine as simple as an air-cooled pancake 4-cylinder engine. Either way, he wasn’t intentionally built to drive himself. Even then, Disney explored the dark side of this, too:

Horace the Hate Bug was an evil magic autonomous vehicle, who, like KARR above, had his own laser and cut Herbie in half. The car was so evil that, upon losing the race, he descends into the pits of hell. He’s so bad that even Satan didn’t want him, so he was destroyed and some of his parts were sent careening back to the surface. Even owning the “devil car” was apparently a heinous crime for which the movie’s bad guy goes to prison.

Yes, it’s corny, but it’s still a fun movie. And it shows us how self-driving cars have been portrayed in fiction over the years. With the exception of maybe Johnny Cab in Total Recall and the completely normalized autonomous OnStar Chevy truck in The Sixth Day, autonomous vehicles are either really good or really evil. Johnny Cab was rather annoying, so some readers may place him in the evil category, but only because he was dysfunctional to the point of dangerous.

Given their fictional potential for great evil and dangerous stupidity, we shouldn’t be surprised that a significant portion of the public fears that the autonomous vehicle revolution won’t end well for us.

Our Hopes & Their Fears

While most cleantech and Tesla fans are excited about the potential of autonomous vehicles, we aren’t a random sample. The bad news: about half of the US population says they will never ride in an autonomous taxi or rideshare vehicle. About 3/4 of people say it isn’t ready for prime time (a fact in most cases today), but 20% of the population doesn’t think it will ever be ready. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population say they think that the disadvantages of autonomous vehicles will outweigh the advantages.

PAVE (which conducted the poll) seems to think that these feelings are rooted in ignorance of the technology, which leads to distrust, but I wouldn’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion. Americans, like many people around the world, have had legitimately bad experiences with the proliferation of new technology in the past.

Daniel Nieblas points out that the mistrust of AVs isn’t rooted in mere unfamiliarity with the technology, but fears that we will lose control over our lives. Big Tech voices are telling us to expect autonomous vehicles as a service, and not as something you own. Instead of owning your car, and with the car getting personal autonomy and choice, we’ll all depend on Google, Amazon, Tesla, and maybe Apple for our transportation.

Given the nightmare social media and devices have become, it’s not an irrational fear. Some of the same companies that brought us interference in elections, amplification of insane voices like Donald Trump, the proliferation of hate speech and racism, and the general deterioration of long standing friendships many of us have faced, it’s not an experience we want to repeat with something as important as our freedom of movement.

Add to it fears some have that giving up car ownership is just the top of a slippery slope.

Screenshot of original WEF article before its headline was changed.

The World Economic Forum hosts annual meetings with business leaders, politicians, and other influential people from around the world. When the fearful see an article that appears to advocate for people owning nothing, having no privacy, and that this is their version of a future urban utopia, that’s frightening for them. Yes, that’s not what the writer there meant to do (and they changed the headline after an uproar), but the damage has been done, and this is far from the first time they’ve seen stuff like this.

The fearful are left with the impression that the elites want to own and control everything, including us (and they may largely be right about some of the elites). A future where we can’t do anything without their permission and interference scares a lot of people. Now, they’re attacking America’s symbol of personal freedom: the automobile.

It’s becoming more than some people feel they can take lying down. The fears are so bad that people have attacked Waymo’s vehicles in Chandler, Arizona with rocks, guns, and knives. Attackers who’ve been caught by police say they fear the vans will harm their children, destroy badly-needed jobs, and bring other social ills. One even cited the death of Elaine Herzberg (who was struck and killed by an Uber test car) as justification for violence against Waymo and its drivers.

Waymo isn’t the only target of vandalism and violence. As many Tesla owners know, they’re also a magnet for this.

While we don’t know the reasons these people chose to damage the vehicles and sometimes even road rage against them, there’s usually no behavior by the owner that instigated this. People come out of the blue and attack the cars just because they’re a Tesla.

Fixing This Problem

I know many readers will find these fears irrational (and obviously the criminal acts against AVs aren’t justified), but even if you’re the biggest fan of autonomous vehicle technology, it’s not something the industry can afford to just ignore and hope it goes away. The bad public perception of AVs is something that needs to be addressed, and not in a token manner. There are real people with real fears here that need to really be addressed if the industry is going to thrive long term.

People need to feel like AVs will enhance their personal freedom, not degrade it. Changing that perception with meaningful industry reform and less rhetoric against personal ownership/control can go a long way.

Featured image by Tesla.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1871 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba