Consumers Fear Big Tech, Not Driverless Tech

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In October, J.D. Power reported that most consumers are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of riding in a self-driving car. The latest American Automobile Association survey also found that nearly three in four Americans “remain afraid of fully self-driving vehicles.” Many in the industry take these surveys to mean that the public simply doesn’t understand the enormous societal benefits that driverless cars will bring. Roads will be safer, mobility will be more accessible, and we’ll all be relieved of the driving chore. Moreover, they conclude that drivers stubbornly refuse to surrender the steering wheel, falsely believing themselves more capable than robots.

The industry’s misapprehension arises from both its arrogance and the shallowness of the survey questions. History records an American public quite willing to embrace new technology. But recent history also shows a growing distrust of Big Tech — from app-enabled mobility monopolies to social media giants.

Our survey says!

No matter how far off into the future driverless cars may be, they have become real enough to create a specific context for the public’s feelings toward them. The question isn’t whether you’d be okay with riding in a robot car you built in your garage or on a shuttle provided by a trusted public agency. The question is whether you’re afraid of riding in – and driving in traffic with –autonomous vehicles put out by the likes of Uber, Google, and Facebook. The question is not, “Do you trust tech?” but “Do you trust Big Tech?”

Google dropped “don’t be evil” from its mission statement in 2015. Is it evil now? (Photo: Getty Images)

Is Google evil now?

A decade or so ago, mission statements about “making the world a better place” might have convinced consumers of Silicon Valley’s benevolence. I believed Google’s “don’t be evil” motto back when it was an upstart search box on a blank page. Mark Zuckerberg says he created Facebook to empower people to build communities and “bring the world closer together.” On the other hand, a leading presidential candidate has called Facebook a, “disinformation-for-profit machine.” Lyft was once, “Your Friend with a Car.” As Mike Isaac’s new book Super Pumped chronicles  Uber’s rise as a venture-capital-funded, employee-exploiting, criminal enterprise. Amazon’s Alexa has been caught eavesdropping and we await word that Home and Portal are uploading videos to Google and Facebook’s servers, respectively.

The warm and fuzzy mission statements emanating from the Big Tech now sound out of touch. Consider the latest initiative to emanate from the driverless car ecosystem: Partners for Automated Vehicle Education. PAVE claims its mission to be, “educating policymakers and the public in the hopes that greater knowledge and understanding will help society fully realize the benefits driverless technology.”

But to educate is to lead out from ignorance toward truth. Here the truth is asserted: driverless technology has inherent benefits that the public must be taught to appreciate. PAVE’s goal is to inculcate, to stomp on you until you see it their way.

PAVE’s partners range from self-driving startups such as Zoox and to Volkwagen and General Motors. Waymo has joined the PAVE-ing operation while also creating its own PR channel: #letstalkselfdriving. “We’re building a world that can connect us, keep us safe, and bring people together,” Waymo declares. That sounds an awful lot like Facebook before the Russian trolls showed up.

SAE Demo Days TampaThe SAE invited volunteers in Tampa, Florida, to tell them how they liked a driverless test “drive.” (Photo: SAE)

I rode in a self-driving car!

PAVE, Waymo and others have been enlisting the Society of Automotive Engineers in their driverless car charm offensive. The SAE hosts “Demo Days” to “build comfort, confidence, and trust around the technology.” You get free parking, a free ride, and an, “I rode the self-driving car!” badge when you’re done. It sounds like a fun afternoon. The SAE reports that 82 percent of people “were initially enthusiastic for self-driving cars.” That figure jumped to 92 percent, post ride. Of course, the sample is self selecting. Doubtless people afraid of driverless cars don’t jump at the chance to ride in one – even with the promise of a cool badge. The fact is, the SAE and its sponsors are not trying to gauge public opinion with these surveys. They provide data as rhetoric intended to convince people that their fear of driverless cars is irrational.

Perhaps, but I’m once burned twice shy. Facebook and Google and Amazon have vacuumed up our very souls. The car may be our last refuge.
Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent-company Alphabet, planned create a 200-acre “smart city” in Toronto. The Canadians politely demurred. (Image: Sidewalk Labs)

Toronto Pushes Back

Torontonians have shown how we can embrace high tech, including driverless cars, while rejecting Big Tech. Sidewalk Labs – which, along with Waymo and Google is a subsidiary of Alphabet – proposed building a “smart city” on upwards of 200 acres along Toronto’s waterfront. Crosswalks would measure pedestrian speeds. Park benches and toilets would report their usage. Heated bike lanes would melt snow. There would be robots to collect the garbage, pneumatic tubes and drones for delivery and, of course, driverless ride-hailing services. But the Google alumni behind Sidewalk Labs wanted exemptions from the city’s zoning and development rules. Also, despite reassurances to the contrary, Sidewalk would retain the clouds and clouds of data generated by the district’s sensors and cameras.

The more the public learned about Sidewalk’s intentions – buried in more 1,500 graphic-novel pages of planning documents – the less they liked them. One opposition group declared that a “Google affiliate intends to turn cities into corporate surveillance states.” University of Toronto civil engineering professor Shoshanna Saxe observed that, despite assembling advisory panels and reportedly discussing the plans with thousands of Torontonians, the company never really listened. Writing in the New York Times, Professor Saxe argued that people were not afraid of “smart city” technology but skeptical of its benefits and wary of Silicon Valley’s motives. I suggested to here there might be a parallel to driverless cars. “I think that is fair,” she agreed. “People aren’t afraid of autonomous cars; they just want their privacy and autonomy (no pun intended) protected.”

Just in time for Halloween, the government board responsible for approving the development unanimously voted to scale it back. Sidewalk would get a small 12-acre parcel to play with. Data collected would become a public asset, not a private profit center. The city, or Sidewalk, can still back out altogether.

The Canadians aren’t afraid of autonomous vehicles, and neither are their neighbors to the south. But on both sides of the border Big Tech’s big promises have grown stale.

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