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Autonomous Vehicles: A Force That Will Transform American Culture

Technology, government policy and public opinion are converging toward vehicles that don't need anyone behind the wheel.

by / May 13, 2015

Human psychology plays a central role in today’s technological and political landscape. Rather than relying on data to drive decision-making, legislatures often go with their gut or cater to special interest groups inflamed by anecdotes that may or may not represent what’s happening in the world. Organizations push issues they’re passionate about regardless of whether those issues are really what the country needs, and the human animal doesn’t care that shuffling into a metal tube and soaring thousands of feet above the Earth to get from the East Coast to West is statistically safer than steering a Honda down the freeway. People make decisions using intuition and have a hard time letting go, even when proven wrong; and they have an equally hard time letting go of the wheel and accepting that one day soon, the car will be the one doing the driving.

It’s unknown how long the technologies behind self-driving cars will have been in development before they enter the market. Even the staunchest proponents of self-driving vehicles admit that today’s artificial intelligence is no match for human intuition when strange circumstances arise, like a damaged road, strange lighting or fallen light pole. Nonetheless, it’s only a matter of years before self-driving pilots like the one led by Google become old hat.

And at this stage in the game, there’s a race between technologists and lawmakers. 

Just this year, three states enacted autonomous vehicle legislation, making for a total of four states -- California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan -- where self-driving vehicle legislation has passed. And the latter is home to the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, a simulated city for testing connected and smart vehicles and infrastructure.

The failed legislative efforts in a dozen other states indicate first efforts where more are sure to follow, and pending legislation for self-driving vehicles can be found in about a dozen more. Lawmakers are getting ready because self-driving cars are going to be a big industry, a big public safety issue, and a force that transforms American culture.

For most new technologies, it’s not the data people are interested in, but the anecdotes. In 1.7 million miles logged by Google’s self-driving cars, the company reports only 11 collisions, all of which were minor and all of which were the fault of a human driver. But the fact that a computer was involved in steering one of the vehicles will scare people away from the technology, despite all logic.

Something like 90 percent of vehicle collisions today are caused by human driver error, but man’s hubris tells him that he’s different. “Everyone else is just a bad driver,” man thinks. “When I’m driving, it’s safer than flying.” But most analyses indicate that computers are nearly always better than human drivers where safety is concerned, and they’re only getting better.

The roads to better self-driving tech can be found not just in the aforementioned University of Michigan test facility, but also in the Gomentum Station in Concord, Calif.; the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa Bay, Fla.; and at Viriginia Tech’s Viriginia Smart Road site in Blacksburg, Va. With resources provided by public-private partnerships and acres of land for researchers to test self-driving vehicles, connected vehicles and smart roadway infrastructure, the technology will be in the market before the public knows it.

The way people get comfortable with technologies that, under normal circumstances, might not be so comfortable is the same way they gain weight from eating too much pork and learn to tolerate life’s many other annoyances. Through a slow and subtle plodding, it’s quite easy to desensitize the public to traumatic ideas. War and violence are readily accepted as a fact of life by most Americans, and if people were rational, everyone would drop what they’re doing to stop nonstop violence happening around the world.

In the 1940s, Eric Blair wrote a popular novel under a pen name warning that too many cameras might not be a great idea, but when it comes time to buy a new laptop or smart TV, that device’s high shine wins out over all else. After all, the neighbor has one, and nothing that bad has happened yet. The National Security Agency’s comprehensive multi-billion-dollar spying efforts are less overt these days, so what’s to worry about? Once automakers commission a few Super Bowl halftime spots and self-driving vehicles begin hitting the road, the futuristic technology that once seemed so bizarre will seem normal. Corn chips, deodorant, a self-driving car, and then back to the game. People will be programmed to let go of their fear of letting go.

The money that can be saved by adopting self-driving vehicles won’t do anything to slow down progress either. Self-driving taxis don’t have human drivers who require reimbursement for their services, and the savings get passed on to the rider. One study suggests that self-driving taxi fees could be as much as 35 percent lower. The study also points out that self-driving cars might someday have the collective capacity to reduce congestion and pollution.

Another great thing about human psychology is the way people can rationalize switching sides once they see they were wrong, and with little damage to the ego -- because people have selective memories, too. Self-driving vehicles might save lives, make traveling easier and faster, and make for a cleaner environment. Where today are all the people who once opposed plastics and equal rights for minorities? Technological advents and broad social changes of decades past seem obvious to nearly everyone once they’ve taken hold, and once self-driving vehicles begin proving their worth, their opposition will end up in the back seat just like everyone else.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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