Well, *Obviously* People Are Changing Their Minds About Self-Driving Cars

Published in Online Spin, August 5, 2016.

“Self-driving cars are coming but most people don’t want one,” wrote MediaPost writer Chuck Martin back in March, citing a study of people 15 to 90 years old. Two weeks later, he followed it up with the final demographic: 63% of kids aged 8 to 18 “would prefer to do the driving rather than letting the vehicle handle the task.”

Really? People are resistant to new technology? What a surprise. Surely if a poll says people don’t want a new thing, it won’t happen, right?

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrongety wrong. Progress consistently happens in spite of resistance to it. Given how attached we are to our cars, it’s easy to forget that we resisted them, too -- at first.

In 1903, for example, “Vermont passed a law requiring a person to walk in front of the car waving a red flag, which rather defeated the purpose of using the car in the first place,” while the the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania proposed that, “Automobiles traveling on country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear,” and, “In case a horse is unwilling to pass an automobile on the road, the driver of the car must take the machine apart as rapidly as possible and conceal the parts in the bushes.”

Yet somehow, despite this hostility towards horseless carriages and the rich snobs who drove them, the number of cars on the road went from 8,000 to 8 million in just 20 years.

That’s a pretty short period of time. But it’s widely accepted that we’re adopting new technologies at an accelerating pace.

But so what? We still have to actually want the technology, right?

Not necessarily. Tesla’s Autopilot got rolled out via push update to every Model S owner with the tech package. They didn’t have to want Autopilot, or ask for it, or even pay for it. They just woke up one morning… and had it. From zero to 60,000 Autopilot-enabled cars on the road -- overnight.

“But it’s so dangerous! Didn’t you hear about that guy who died?”

I did. My condolences go out to the family and loved ones of Joshua Brown. In no way do I want to diminish their loss.

Joshua’s death was the first fatality for a self-driving car. It happened after more than 130 million miles had been logged in Autopilot mode -- a significantly better record than human drivers in America (who average a fatality every 94 million miles) or worldwide (60 million miles).

But it doesn’t matter. We don’t mind being killed by other humans; we loathe being killed by robots. The old technology is given the benefit of the doubt, while the new technology is held to a much higher standard.

Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah, in an Italian car magazine in 1912, as quoted in”Autophobia": “Horses, trams, trains can collide, smash, kill half the world, and nobody cares. But if an automobile leaves a scratch on an urchin who dances in front of it, or on a drunken carter who is driving without a light, then woe to the motorist.”

Just as we’ll get over our resistance to the cars themselves, we’ll get over the fear of them killing us. In fact, it’s already begun: this week, Chase Martin (who may or may not be related to the Chuck Martin who originally reported that people don’t want autonomous vehicles), shared a new study: apparently most Millennials are now comfortable with the idea of an AI-driven car.

Any guesses on the number of years until widespread adoption?

For a bit of light edutainment, check out this comic I made about self-driving cars and exponential technology.