As NPR pointed out in 2015, “every new automatic device that enters our lives, from automatic doors to escalators, has had to face this awkward moment where people are skeptical and maybe scared.”
When the first public railway opened in England in 1825, for example, people thought the human body wasn’t made to withstand travel at speeds of 30 miles per hour for long periods of time, cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. She added that some even believed “that women’s bodies were not designed to go at 50 miles an hour,” and worried that their “uteruses would fly out of [their] bodies as they were accelerated to that speed.”
When elevators first became automated a century ago, meanwhile, some people were afraid to ride in them without an operator onboard—in much the same way some now fear not having a human at the helm of a driverless car. NPR talked to the guy who literally wrote the book on elevator history, Lee Gray, and he noted that when the automatic elevator was first invented, “People walked in and looked and walked right back out. They would try to find someone to say ‘Where’s the operator?'”
Of course, there’s a huge difference between a metal box moving slowly along an enclosed concrete shaft and a metal box with four wheels moving fast along an open concrete surface with hundreds of other such boxes. But the basic unease with not having a human in control is the same, and it’s almost as irrational as expecting a human to operate an elevator.
Public Misgivings about Self-Driving Cars
It seems as if a new survey comes out every month revealing public doubts about self-driving cars. The results of a recent Deloitte survey of 22,000 consumers around the world revealed that “trust appears to be the biggest roadblock to selling the notion of self-driving cars.”
Less than half of US consumers surveyed (47 percent) “trust a traditional car manufacturer to bring autonomous vehicles to market,” Deloitte found, while only 20 percent have confidence in Silicon Valley tech companies to get self-driving technology right. Just this week, yet another survey of 3,116 drivers conducted between January 31 and February 6 found that almost a quarter (24.8 percent) of respondents would never ride in a self-driving car.
Even the new Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao earlier this week expressed concerns over negative public opinion on self-driving technology. “In particular, I want to challenge Silicon Valley, Detroit, and all other auto industry hubs to step up and help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technology,” she said.
I have my own doubts about autonomous technology, even after riding in several self-driving cars on public roads and testing vehicles with the latest semi-autonomous systems. But my reservations are about when fully autonomous technology will be perfected, not if it will be perfected—and become as normal as elevators.
I’ll take my chances with vehicle sensors and cameras that are always on the lookout and even in-car computers over distracted drivers and human shortcomings. I highly doubt that robot-driven cars will kill 30,000-plus people in roadway accidents each year in the US alone.
The automatic elevator was invented circa 1900, but it took more than 50 years before the public became comfortable with the technology and human elevator operators became obsolete. I don’t believe it will take that much time before self-driving cars catch on, and it may not even be that long before human drivers go the way of elevator operators.