To Take the Wheel, Robot Cars Must Pry it From My Cold Dead Hands

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Self-driving cars are a government plot. Clearly.

All that talk about preventing accidents and saving lives? A classic, obvious ruse. Cars that communicate with each other and drive themselves are nothing less than an attempt by the car companies and a tyrannical government to monitor and control your every move.

It’s all there on the Internet. Hint: You’ll find more rants against self-driving cars if you add “Obama” to your search terms.

Autonomous cars haven’t even hit the market yet, and already the conspiracy-minded corners of the Web are gearing up to greet them, in essays with titles like “Will Government be Able to Remotely Control Your Car?” and “Obama’s Science Czar Wants Self-driving Automobile Mandates to Further Agenda 21.”

But set aside, for the moment, the fact that some people will find a federal plot in changes to their favorite toothpaste. The preemptive revulsion points to something real that automakers would do well to consider in their race to deploy auto-driving technology: Many people will hate these cars.

And while some of the reasons may be visceral — on the order of gut-level reactions — they aren’t crazy.

In a survey of 2,000 drivers last year by, 22.4 percent said they would be “very likely” to buy a self-driving car. But 24.5 percent said they would “never” do so. A whopping 76.2 percent said they wouldn’t trust an autonomous car to take their child to school.

And it isn’t just a question of trust.

For most of their history, cars have equaled freedom. The freedom to go where you want, live where you want, work where you want and canoodle with whomever you want beyond the prying eyes of your parents. Driving has equaled control of your own destiny, even if you’re also trusting countless strangers not to cut that destiny short by plowing into you.

Many consequences

And yes, freedom has come with a cost — namely, sprawl, smog, traffic jams and a warming world. Regardless, many drivers won’t easily give it up.

“In American culture, the automobile has played a tremendously important, liberating role,” said John Simpson, with the Consumer Watchdog public advocacy group. “There is, for many people, some sense of freedom that comes from being able to drive your own vehicle. And if autonomous cars completely take that away, that’s going to be a problem.”

Simpson’s organization is in Santa Monica, and he sees potential value in a car that could help drivers endure the Los Angeles area’s famously brutal commute.

“No one in their right mind wants to be stuck on the 405 in gridlock traffic with an ungodly long commute, and if you had a vehicle that could drive that for you, great,” Simpson said. “I would welcome that; I’d say that’s fine for an automated vehicle. But I’d really enjoy driving up to Big Sur on Highway 1 without the robot. I really like that drive.”

Granted, different companies are taking different paths to the self-driving car. Tesla Motors, for example, is testing an “autopilot” mode for its electric Model S sedan that will be able to steer the car at freeway speed but will still require the driver to pay attention. Most other automakers are pursuing a similar vision.

In contrast, Google’s prototype self-driving car didn’t even have a steering wheel until California regulators insisted on it. Drivers wouldn’t really drive — they’d just tell the car where to go.

“A lot of us enjoy driving, and we don’t want to lose that,” said John Bowman, communications director for the National Motorists Association, a drivers’ rights organization that counts 9,000 members. “A lot of these people are driving enthusiasts, and we hear from them routinely about their concerns about whether at some point they’ll lose that control.”

Major skeptics

Bowman’s group formed in 1982 to oppose the 55 mph speed limit, and fighting what members consider excessive regulation remains a core pursuit. Red-light cameras, for example, are one of the association’s primary targets.

Bowman says the idea of government trying to control the travel routes of connected cars isn’t a paranoid fantasy. Such a system could be used to ease congestion — a genuine benefit — but it would still mean handing someone else a measure of control, he said. He doesn’t like giving that power to Google, a private company, any better.

“Government does tend to overreach, and we’ve found throughout history, one way government seeks to control people is limiting their movement,” Bowman said. “It’s not so far-fetched.”

There’s also the issue of privacy.

Modern cars — already heavily computerized, often Web-connected — generate a lot of data about their trips. That information doesn’t necessarily stay with the driver.

For an example, consider the public spat two years ago between Tesla and a New York Times reporter who had taken a Model S for a test drive up the East Coast and ended up with a dead battery. Convinced that the reporter had intentionally tried to run out of juice, Tesla CEO Elon Musk published data from the car showing that the reporter never fully recharged the battery when he had the chance, didn’t cut his speed or turn down the car’s thermostat to save power as he reported, and at one point drove circles around a parking lot before finally plugging in to a charger.

What about data?

That level of detail concerns Simpson and Consumer Watchdog. They want legislation governing what companies can do with the data produced by connected cars and self-driving vehicles. The fact that one of the leading companies in the field is Google heightens their fears.

“You’ve got to remember who Google is,” Simpson said. “Google is a company that sucks up as much data about us as it can, and uses that data to target advertising. That’s what they do. … There’s a real danger here of people losing control of their information.”

Much depends on how self-driving cars evolve over the coming years. Both Simpson and Bowman say the cars could be beneficial if done right. Both want to ensure that even if the technology becomes popular, people will still have the option of driving old-fashioned, steer-it-yourself cars.

They will probably get their wish, said Rod Diridon, director emeritus of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. Replacing all the cars on the road takes decades, so even if self-driving vehicles cars catch on, they will have to share the road for years with their non-autonomous brethren.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we never get to a system where we have all-autonomous cars, because of personal preferences,” Diridon said. While he sees great potential in the cars, he too thinks some drivers will never accept them.

“They’ll still want to duck in and out of traffic, get another car length on someone else,” Diridon said. “They’ll be angry if their testosterone is thwarted. The only the way you’ll get them into autonomous cars is if the Legislature mandates it. And I don’t think any Legislature is going to mandate it.”

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