After centuries of getting around primarily via horses, many people viewed the first automobiles with apprehension. This newfangled “horseless carriage” was considered too fast and dangerous to ever catch on.
In the late 19th century, England even had a law called the Red Flag Act, which required self-propelled vehicles to be led at walking pace by someone waving a red flag. In 1895, the New York Times noted that the law would effectively “destroy the usefulness of a horseless carriage,” although we now know that the car (and good sense) prevailed.
It wasn’t just fear of speed that spooked early detractors of motor cars. Some thought that horses had better sense than humans. Another New York Times article from 1928 that compared fear of airplanes with the initial concern with cars quoted Alfred Sennett of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. “We should not overlook the fact that the driving of a horseless carriage calls for a larger amount of attention, for [the driver] has not the advantage of the intelligence of the horse in shaping his path, and it is consequently incumbent upon him to be ever watchful of the course his vehicle is taking,” he warned in 1896.
While this seems ludicrous 120 years later—although strangely prescient when you consider today’s issue with distracted driving—autonomous vehicle technology is being greeted with a similar mistrust. We’re even using a similar irrational description: By calling cars “horseless carriages” back then, people added the familiar element that was missing, in the much the same way we do now with the term “driverless cars.”
Unfounded Fear of a New Technology
As with early automobiles, this unfounded fear of a new technology could impede autonomous vehicle technology, especially given the inordinate amount of media attention surrounding the handful of accidents involving self-driving cars. And especially given that in a couple of recently highly publicized accidents involving self-driving cars, autonomous technology wasn’t at fault.
The most recent example is an accident last week in which one of Uber’s self-driving Volvo XC90s was struck by a driver in the Phoenix area, where the ride-hailing company is testing it autonomous technology on public roads. The other driver failed to yield and the collision caused the Uber vehicle to land in its side. But even though a human driver was reportedly at fault and no injuries were reported, Uber temporarily halted its testing of autonomous vehicles in the area (operations resumed on Monday).
A similar media frenzy followed two injury-free accidents involving Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs while they were testing the tech giant’s autonomous technology on its home turf in Mountain View, California. The first occurred in February 2016 when a Google self-driving Lexus struck a bus while merging into another lane; the second happened last September when a driver ran a red light and T-boned a Google Lexus.
No one was injured in these accidents. So far, the only fatality in the US involving self-driving technology was an accident last May in which a Tesla Model S owner was killed when the car broadsided an 18-wheeler after failing to stop. The tragic accident not only called into question whether Tesla’s Autopilot feature truly is an autonomous technology despite the name (it’s not), but also set off a media firestorm.
I get that accidents involving self-driving cars make for good coverage. But when you consider that on average nearly 100 people die in motor automobile accidents each day in the US and compare that with the few autonomous vehicle crashes and one known fatality, it’s far from fair and balanced reporting.
I also get that fear sells, but revisiting the hysteria that first greeted horseless carriages a century ago is not only misguided but could also hinder autonomous technology—and lead to a lot more accidents and loss of life.