You and the Autonomous Vehicle

Modern technology has a long relationship with political failure. In 1945, George Orwell was already lamenting the failures of radio to live up the expectations that it would “promote international understanding and co-operation”. Europe’s push to embrace diesel in the 1980s has been hugely problematic, so much so that less than 40 years later it is being phased put again. And of course, the internet – as incredible as it is – continues to demonstrate the lesson that as much as you may want to pin progressive politics onto technology, its development will always end up being more complicated. 

There is no reason that autonomous vehicles will be any different. But listening to Waymo, you might think autonomous vehicles were already a success. There’s just one problem: you. Last month, Waymo launched a public education campaign aimed at raising awareness around their self-defined ‘self-driving cars’. The details of this public education campaign are thin. There’s a sparsely utilised hashtag: #letstalkselfdriving, a promise of website resources, and planned public trial. “There is a lot to talk about when it comes to self-driving cars. As with any new technology, there’s great enthusiasm and curiosity about self-driving cars — and there’s some confusion, too”, reads their announcement on Medium. And here’s what Waymo thinks a person confused about their cars sounds like: ““Is that a self-driving car?” “How does it know what to do?” “Are they safe?” “When can I ride in one myself?””. 

Do you sound like this? Maybe you do. But maybe you’re not confused at all. Maybe you have an established and well-informed view on autonomous vehicles, or more generally, automation. It’s notable, and entirely transparent, that the transformations that Waymo wants to educate and inform you on are all positive. Increased safety. Increased mobility. Increased freedom. But, what if you have concerns? 

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Waymo want to talk business– not politics. So, it’s no surprise that the potential complications that come with autonomous vehicles – job losses, ownership inequality, cyber security – are brushed aside in their public education pitch. Sure, a public education campaign sounds great, at first, but it’s an old-fashioned way of engaging citizens with a new technology. It implicitly casts potential users of the vehicles as poor citizens, who are badly informed, confused, and pliant. 

This is perhaps harsh on Waymo, who, after all, are developing something of extraordinary technical complexity. However, technical achievement doesn’t automatically equate with social progress. Pew Research shows that American are about twice as likely to express concern (72%) than enthusiasm (33%) about automation in the future. 76% expect greater levels of economic inequality. With driverless vehicles in particular, 81% of the respondents expect there will be job losses among those who drive for a living, while 64% expect that it will increase feelings of isolation among the elderly. People have not simply plucked these ideas out of thin air: many have serious vested interests in the potential transformations brought about by self-driving cars. The view that you simply need to ‘educate’ these people is naïve, bordering on insulting. 

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Nonetheless, autonomous vehicles now have a firmly established social imaginary. The self-driving car has already been mediatised. Exotic representations, like Elon Musk’s latest stage trick, powerfully shape how we think about these vehicles. It especially awes eager technology journalists, who have their own duties to fulfil in all this. But as Tesla’s current production figures show, the reality is more complicated. However, so powerfully have these vehicles become couched in socially progressive discourses that sceptics of their development are easily cast as technophobes or luddites. In other words, being concerned about Waymo’s or Tesla’s vision of self-driving cars means being against autonomous vehicles themselves. This isn’t right – it stifles democratic deliberation and the range of valid concerns citizens have. And what that comes down to is the way we conceive of the public in relation to the development of autonomous vehicles – which is where my research in the UK focuses.

You will have a relationship with autonomous vehicles. So, how do we meaningfully communicate about autonomous vehicles? The first thing we need to start tackling an entrenched problem: Waymo, like most tech companies, have terrible conceptions of citizenship. This is a problem exacerbated by the concerning lack of transparency that clouds the role of large tech companies in the democratic process. This needs to change.

So then, consider a different perspective: perhaps it is Waymo that needs educating, not you.