Autonomous vehicles technology, or driverless cars in layman’s terms, seem set to change the world we live in more than any technology development since the internet. It is hoped the greater efficiency with which they are able to map routes and sensors and omitting the risk of human error meaning vehicles can drive at speed in convoys with little distance between them will help to make congestion a thing of the past. Or at least significantly improve it.
Autonomous vehicles also promise to hand us back our commute time, allowing us to do something useful or enjoyable instead of driving from A to B. The technology should hugely reduce the number of road accidents, reduce our travel costs and the need to pay for our own car as transport becomes a service. Mean we can convert the garage into another room. And, purely powered by electric, make a significant contribution to raising hope we might just win the race against time with climate change.
So why have there been an estimated 24 serious attacks of vandalism on driverless car prototypes in Chandler, a small city located near Phoenix, the capital of Arizona. Tires have been slashed, vehicles pelted with rocks, other cars have tried to run test vehicles off the road and human co-drivers suffered threats of violence. If autonomous vehicle technology delivers just a small percentage of the lifestyle improvements its developers promise, surely the general public should be embracing and not vandalising it?
Test vans run by Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving unit that is developing the autonomous vehicles OS equivalent to Android, have borne the brunt of the violence and general anger. Most likely as a result of their distinctive appearance making them obvious to spot. Many analysts expect similar incidents to start to spread across the USA as driverless cars become a common sight on roads in the build-up to a full roll-out of the technology at some point towards the middle or end of the next decade.
There are two main reasons why driverless vehicles are provoking such venomous levels of antipathy. One is a, based on all reliable evidence, illogical fear of the safety threat posed by autonomous vehicles technology. While there have been incidents during testing, most tragically the death of a female pedestrian hit by an Uber test vehicle in March of last year. The accident took place in Tempe, a town not far from Chandler. However, as tragic as the incident was, the woman was crossing the busy road in the dark and not using a pedestrian crossing. A human driver would almost certainly have stood less chance of avoiding collision. Most incidents involving driverless vehicles have been caused by the human error of other drivers and not the driverless technology.
The overwhelming opinion of experts is that mass adoption of autonomous vehicles technology and few, if any, human drivers on roads will make the world a much safer place for pedestrians, cyclists and anyone being transported by a driverless car.
The other reason why some members of the public are lashing out at the technology is far more logical. Autonomous vehicles, for all the general benefits the technology promises, will have a colossal impact on the global economy. And as with any sea change in the economy, there will be innocent victims whose jobs will be rendered obsolete. Basically anyone whose job directly involves driving as its primary function, or is part of the wider ecosystem around drivers, from traffic police to car salesmen, will probably be forced into the hunt for alternative employment within a decade or two.
Despite all of the assurances that driverless vehicles will make economies more efficient in a way that everyone will ultimately benefit from, there is a belief, that probably has some justification, that the giant corporations that will carve up the immense value of this new market are interested in only their own balance sheets. At the end of the day, do they really care, or enough to act on it, that millions will lose their jobs as a result?
On the other hand, economies have shifted their footing several times throughout modern history. There is always pain as jobs and sectors are made obsolete by advances in technology or the geopolitics and economic interests of globalisation. But few who live in the developed world would vote to return to the time when Western economies were based on heavy industry. Even if their grandparents might have been among those cast aside as industries moved East or were automated.
The attacks on driverless vehicles in Chandler might be a worrying sign of the economic upheaval to come and the animosity that is likely to provoke. It is also a sign of the extent of the impact the autonomous vehicles revolution looks set to have on our daily lives and the economies we earn a living from. These unpleasant incidents, and the many more that are sure to follow, won’t derail the movement towards change, as they never have in the past. But perhaps they are a timely reminder to the companies behind the technology that they need to do more to address public concern.