Gaining Public Trust in Self-Driving Cars: The Case of the Elevator

I wrote this chapter in The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Caranticipating that it would be a chapter devoted entirely to gaining consumer acceptance of autonomous vehicles in the U.S. I really liked it after I wrote it but felt like it did not fit well with my whole book. Also, I discuss the difficulties of gaining consumer acceptance many other times in the book. However, I would like to share it with all of you because it is a great way for me to discuss the problems of public acceptance of very promising and yet potentially dangerous or fatal new technologies.

CEOs from every autonomous vehicle company say that safety is the number one priority. The technology has become more mature over the last 10 years. However, the level of public trust has not increased. People like Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, claim there is a media bias against AVs. This perceived bias is most likely due to the fact that these vehicles represent a new technology and the lack of direct human control over these vehicles makes accidents involving them more frightening.

U.S. companies, such as Waymo, have fine-tuned their automated driving systems, the “brain” that drives the vehicle, through millions of miles of testing on public roads and billions of miles in computer simulations. These vehicles are also equipped with high tech LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors and cameras as their eyes to “perceive” the world around them. However, public perception is reality and autonomous vehicle companies need to focus on creating a more positive narrative related to their vehicles. Simply talking about their vehicles’ technology would be incomprehensible to most people.

The level of trust in AVs has not only not increased, but it has actually decreased in recent years. According to a yearly survey, conducted by AAA, in 2018 63% of U.S. adults surveyed said they are afraid of getting into a fully autonomous car. This number increased to 71% in 2019 and nearly 90% in 2020.

This survey could be biased because AAA depends on assisting human drivers for their entire business model. The main obstacle may be lack of experience riding in, or even seeing, autonomous vehicles. With no exposure to them, people are unlikely to think that they can actually drive safely and are just some futuristic tech project from Sci-fi movies.

What lies behind this widening gap between technological advancements and public trust? Examining the nature of this new technology provides some clues, as autonomous vehicles represent a disruptive technology. A disruptive technology is a technology that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao described the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on many industries, saying, “The safe integration of automated vehicles into our transportation system will increase productivity, facilitate freight movement, and create new types of jobs.”

As Secretary Chao states, adoption of this technology would have a significant impact on the long-haul freight trucking industry, taxi industry, and numerous other industries. Autonomous vehicles would create new opportunities for people to pursue different roles. However, there would still be a group of people who would lose their jobs in the short term before these new opportunities emerged.

I interviewed Ezra Kovitz, strategic consultant at Founder’s Intelligence. He said, “There are already, in some cases, dedicated bus lanes and some of those buses are AVs and you just don’t really think about it.”

This dedicated bus lanes has led to debates about whether there needs to be dedicated lanes for AVs or not to maximize their efficiency for things like freight trucks for the logistics supply chain. Most of these ideas are still in the early planning stages in the U.S. Autonomous vehicle companies admit that they will be driving on public roads with human-driven vehicles and buses for the foreseeable future and are planning accordingly.

The most common comparison to autonomous vehicles of another disruptive technology is elevators. Elevators provide both benefits and also potential life-threatening risks. People had reason to fear elevators after they were first introduced into buildings in England in the 1830s and the U.S. in the 1840s. The hemp rope that held the elevators up would frequently snap, sending the elevator plunging to the ground, killing everyone inside.

The elevators became more stable in 1852, however, with the introduction of sturdier ropes made of steel wire. It wasn’t until Elisha Otis invented a device that would prevent an elevator from falling if its rope broke in 1853 that the final safety measure was invented. This safer elevator design revolutionized city real estate around the world.

Otis demonstrated his elevator design at the Crystal Palace at America’s first World’s Fair in New York City. In a demonstration, he rode an elevator high in the air and ordered that the rope be cut. The crowd gasped in shock when the person cut the rope and the platform began to fall. Their gasps turned to cheers as his safety device stopped the elevator before it hit the ground.

The device was, “A model of engineering simplicity, the safety device consisted of a used wagon spring that was attached to both the top of the hoist platform and the overhead lifting cable,” wrote Joseph J. Fucini and Suzy Fucini in Entrepreneurs: The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It. If the rope broke, they wrote, “This pressure was suddenly released, causing the big spring to snap open in a jaw-like motion.”

After the spring snapped, they described the rest of the process, stating, “When this occurred, both ends of the spring would engage the saw-toothed ratchet-bar beams that Otis had installed on either side of the elevator shaft, thereby bringing the falling hoist platform to a complete stop.” After Otis’s invention, a person’s fear of falling to their death in a small chamber was gone. The giant skyscrapers common in cities like New York City and Shanghai are only possible because of this invention.

Even after the fail-safe system dramatically increased the safety of the elevator itself, there was still an Elevator Operator in every elevator. The Elevator Operator would open and close the gate that served as the door in early elevators. The Operators would then get passengers to their desired floor and control the speed and direction of the elevator cab. This was a highly technical job that required intense concentration and focus.

Technology has now replaced the role of the Elevator Operator. Passengers can easily press a button for their desired floor and doors open and close automatically. Passengers can also press a button to immediately stop the elevator in case of an emergency. By law, all elevators in the U.S. are also equipped with a telephone to call 911 in case of an emergency.

When told of the comparison of autonomous vehicles to elevators, people frequently mention that human drivers will become the new Elevator Operator. This comparison is accurate. Similar to the Elevator Operators, drivers are responsible for a heavy machine. This machine moves laterally instead of up and down and can move significantly faster than an elevator. There are also many obstacles in its path, such as other cars, pedestrians, animals, trees, etc. Therefore, just like an Elevator Operator, the driver must remain alert and aware of traffic conditions and pedestrians on the road at all times.

Even a distraction of less than a second could lead to a fatal accident. The Elevator Operator’s job was replaced by technology an automated driving system could also replace the need for a human driver.

This change, as well as other changes I describe in my book, will not happen overnight. The technology still needs to mature in order for the automated driving system to be as safe as, or safer, than a human driver. Also, policy needs to be enacted to govern autonomous vehicles at the national level and in some states for them to even be allowed on the road.

Be on the lookout for future articles about the need for consumer acceptance of autonomous vehicles!

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