Road Rage Meets Robot Rage

While AVs have a lot of technological leaps to make before widespread deployment, developers and governments alike also need to also consider the human factors involved, including good old fashioned human fear. Earlier this year, a AAA study showed that almost three out of four (71%) Americans are afraid to ride in an AV. This is a 10% rise in apprehension from earlier studies, a trend that could be connected to the publicity around the 2018 Uber crash in Tempe, Ariz., where a test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian. This lack of trust in AVs alone should be concerning to developers, but in some places that lack of trust has turned into outright enmity.

Test deployments, like the one undertaken by Waymo in Arizona, have become the targets of anger from drivers and pedestrians, including an incident where man pointed a gun at a passing Waymo test vehicle, in full view of the AV’s safety driver. In that case, the man with the weapon (who was arrested) claimed he hated the vehicles, specifically citing the Uber crash as a reason for his anger. Waymo test vehicles have been also been pelted with rocks, had their tires slashed, and motorists have even tried to run them off the road. The incidents have led to caution on the part of Waymo, who has trained their drivers on how to respond to harassment (including how to spot vehicles that are following them, as witnessed by a group of Arizona Republic reporters last December). Arizona is not the only place where this has happened – in California, during a 3 month period of 2018, 2 of the 6 accidents involving AVs were caused by other drivers intentionally colliding with the AV.

So where is this anger coming from? For some in Arizona, it was from feeling that their community was being used as a laboratory, with them as guinea pigs, by AV developers. Ironically, that line of thought has been cited by a number of people who currently oppose the deployment of test AVs in and around Silicon Valley. It’s rather telling that the employees of many of the companies pushing for AV testing don’t want it to occur in their own towns (some going as far as to threaten to “storm city hall” if testing came to Palo Alto…). Other objections may stem from people seeing AVs as a proxy for all automation, and the potential loss of jobs that entails.

So what can be done to make people trust AVs, or at least accept them enough to not run them off the road? On the jobs front, in June a group of Senators introduced a bill to have the Labor Department track jobs being displaced by automation. Responding to the changes brought on by automation is a center point of Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign, and the issue has been raised by other candidates as well. The potential of automation to take away jobs is a long-standing issue made more visible by AVs on the road, and one that won’t be solved by AV proponents alone. What AV supporters have done and can continue to do is attempt to educate the public on now only potential befits of AV deployment (which PAVE, an industry coalition has done), but also better explain just how AV technology works. At least part of the AV fear stems from not understanding how the tech actually operates, and transparency in that vein could go a long way. Future test projects also need to be sure to get input from communities before they start testing, to ease the feeling of AVs being imposed upon an unwilling neighborhood. A recent debate over AV testing in Pittsburgh, where the city obtained funds for community outreach only after approving testing, leading to push back from community members, is a good example of how a proper pre-testing order-of-operations is vital.

For now, there is clearly a lot of room for public engagement and education. Developers should take advantage of this period where AVs are in the public eye without being widely deployed to build trust and understanding, so that once the vehicles start appearing everywhere they are met with open arms, or at least tolerated, rather than ran off the road. After all, while AVs themselves may not feel road rage, it’s already clear they can be victims of it.

P.S. – If you’re interested in learning more about negative reactions to robots, a good starting point is this NY Times article from January 2018.