Self-driving cars may be here by 2018. Will Americans be able to adapt?

What's to come?
July 7 2011 10:26 AM

Life Is a Self-Driving Highway

Will Americans be able to adapt to the autonomous car?

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

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That's one reason why I am currently studying whether the self-driving car will deny Americans their sense of self. Ever want to throttle your inanimate GPS because its suggested route isn't what you know to be best? Imagine that feeling of frustration magnified. Obviously, that's an experience that car manufacturers investing in self-driving autos are desperate to avoid.

So how can auto manufacturers keep autonomous vehicles from conflicting with American core values? They can focus on the rare situations when people prefer to surrender agency. For example, in high-stakes emotional scenarios, people derive more satisfaction from forfeiting control than from making a potentially tragic decision on their own. When a parent must decide whether to continue treatment for a premature newborn infant that will result in severe neurological impairment or to discontinue life support, relinquishing decision power can be difficult. But people often feel better when the decision is forced out of their hands and given to a medical professional.

This is an extreme case. But good marketing of driverless cars will suggest that these vehicles make the split-second decisions that you would prefer not to make—like whether to slam on the brakes or rush through the yellow light, or whether to swerve to avoid the deer that scampers across the road. The advent of electronic stability control, a technology that minimizes swerving and skidding by automatically applying brake pressure, has been extremely effective in reducing crashes. It would be a shame if autonomy concerns prevent all drivers from taking advantage of such features.

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The case of religion and prayer offers a similar situation. People like to assume personal control of their lives, but in high-stakes emotion-laden situations such as waiting to hear the outcome of an HIV test or tending to a loved one undergoing chemotherapy, believers have little difficulty transferring these outcomes into "God's hands." Developers would be wise to convey the superhuman qualities of this technology and to emphasize that the driverless car may know things that you do not. It is already difficult to avoid using the terminology of intellect when describing the increasingly anthropomorphic technology that is coming to dominate daily life. As a class, these technologies are called artificial intelligence. They are "thinking" machines or "smart" robots. The iTunes function that creates a full playlist from a single song is called "Genius." It is a delicate task to convey the superior intelligence of autonomous technologies without offending the human- and self-centered consumer (recall the late, annoying Microsoft Word paper clip, Clippy), but doing so effectively can facilitate user interaction with these technologies.

At a more basic level than making the agent appear God-like, car manufacturers will do well to recognize that people are willing to defer to experts. In rare cases, submissive drivers have followed their GPS devices into bodies of water, onto roads closed for the winter, or, in one tragic case, into the middle of a desert. leading to the death of a young passenger. These examples represent the minority of cases. However, they convey people's respect for perceived expertise, even technology-based expertise, and developers will want to emphasize the autonomous vehicles' credibility to facilitate their adoption. If marketers and engineers consider the psychology of potential consumers, we may enter a future in which self-driving car owners will be amazed that we once dared to handle steering and braking on our own.

In America, we prize convenience. We impatiently anticipate greater conveniences, such as a hands-free car that will allow us to multitask at 60 miles per hour. Yet as the autonomous car and similar technology become consumer realities, they will bump up against the personal agency that Americans hold so dear. Recently, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland expressed skepticism that Americans would be comfortable adapting to the driverless car. He's unsure whether we'll feel safe handing control over. But if the automated car is to take over, manufacturers need to think about more than just safety.

Adam Waytz is a psychologist and an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He studies how people think about minds.

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