The American Attitude to Self-Driving Cars

We're more hopeful about—and scared of—autonomous vehicles than people in the UK or Australia.
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Alexis Madrigal

Self-driving cars will bring a variety of benefits, say a majority of Americans. More than 60 percent of surveyed Americans think autonomous vehicles are very or somewhat likely to lead to fewer crashes, reduced severity of crashes, improved emergency response to crashes, lower vehicle emissions, and better fuel economy. 

And yet, Americans are also more "concerned" than citizens of Australia and the United Kingdom about the potential problems autonomous vehicles could cause, according to a new cross-country survey by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

Americans were more concerned about almost everything: legal liability, data privacy, interactions with non-self-driving vehicles, system performance in poor weather, and the self-driving cars, in general, being worse than humans. 

It's only fitting for the United States to have this two-faced reaction to new technologies. We are the country, after all, that spawned the semiconductor and computing industries right alongside the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Across countries, people who had more automatic technologies installed on their current vehicles—such as advanced speed control—were both more interested in self-driving car technology and more worried about the downsides. 

Proximity to new technologies doesn't necessarily breed contempt, but rather familiarity, a realistic sense of what new technologies can and cannot do for us. The closer we are to technologies, the less likely we are to see them in purely optimistic terms. 

That was also the conclusion our Adrienne LaFrance came to in examining a Pew survey about Americans' views on the next 50 years of technological development. "The survey revealed that people are mostly optimistic about how tech will change our lives in the long run," she found. "But they’re apprehensive about specific technologies that are closer to reality."

If ever there was a time when people were unreservedly excited about new technology, it is over. But the excitement remains, it's just complicated by the trajectory of the 20th century. No matter how much mechanical or computational power a country possesses, utopia keeps retreating into the future. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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