Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: Driverless cars need an off switch

Consumers have many questions about safety, cybersecurity, and privacy in the coming fleets of autonomous vehicles. And they want a say in shaping the future of transportation. 


Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters
A fleet of Uber's Ford Fusion self-driving cars seen through the windows during a demonstration of driverless technology in Pittsburgh in September.

Uber revolutionized the taxi industry by putting customers first. Now, with its pioneering use of automated vehicles in Pittsburgh, Uber is promising to transform mobility altogether.

The problem is that this time, they are losing sight of the very driver of their success: consumers.

In the much-hyped arms race to promote Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology, industry giants have failed to engage consumers in the public discussion of these technologies. Robust, thoughtful debate regarding the implications of widespread AV adoption is not happening. This isn't just bad policy; it's bad business, too.

At best, the absence of meaningful conversation will result in a more difficult and costly transition, at worst it could create insurmountable challenges to widespread adoption. 

When President Obama brings together technologists, scientists, and entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh Thursday for the White House Frontiers conference, when it comes to that city's rapid adoption of driverless technology, the people at the table need to consider the public. 

It's clear consumers want a voice. In a soon-to-be published study conducted by 3TEC, a consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, interviewees were adamant that they wanted a more meaningful say in the future of transportation. 

Though they are excited about driverless cars, consumers remain apprehensive about the lack of control that comes along with the technology, how carmakers will address cybersecurity issues, and what it means for their own personal privacy.

Rather than seeing the future as a choice between automation and nonautomation, consumers said they wanted both, depending on their personal predilection. For instance, they reported being far more likely to volunteer to give up driving when it's task-oriented (such as driving to work), and less likely to do so when it's an outing for leisure (such as a trip to the beach). As one driver said in the study, "I don’t want to lose the experience of getting in that driver's seat, having that control panel in front of me, and feeling the car throttle at my command as I take the road."

Even when people are stuck in traffic, drivers report a sense of power at being able to take short cuts and change routes. In contrast, when they are passengers, consumers care more about convenience (encompassing both physical and mental ease), productivity, and timesavings.

In the 3TEC study, consumers said they were curious about self-driving cars, but assumed a personal ownership model. They imagined driverless cars as providing personal and private space, in marked contrast to the ride sharing fleets of driverless cars that manufacturers and tech companies have proposed.

Even when consumers imagine giving up driving altogether, according to the study, they were not willing to give up total control over what they view as their own private space. As one participant said, "[AVs] are like being a passenger in your own car."

It's clear that consumers are concerned about the changes coming with driverless cars. As one person put it, "Human beings need to be recognized, especially today, everybody wants to have their input influence things ... and to take that away is wrong."

The changes at our doorstep are not like the Civil Rights movement or the rise of Social Security. It's more akin to the Agrarian or Industrial Revolutions – entire sectors of society are going to be impacted and transformed. We can have all of the incredible improvements to our lived lives, but we are going to have to plan and get widespread support for that plan.

Without any meaningful conversation with industry leaders and policymakers, more consumers are already asking themselves if the growing trade-offs driverless cars are even worth it.

Sascha Meinrath is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State and director of X-Lab, an innovative think tank focusing on the intersection of vanguard technologies and public policy. Follow him on Twitter @saschameinrath.

Georgeta Dragoiu is the founder of 3TEC, a consumer advocacy group that provides a voice for consumers to influence policymakers and industry leaders.

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