How will people react if driverless cars fail? (Photo: PeopleImages / iStock)

Rage against the machine

Private Life and Mobility

Angelo Rychel

31-03-2016

       

When humans drive, we are willing to accept mistakes. We are only human after all. But how accepting will we be, when machines take over driving - and fail? Would one fatal error cause a mass movement against driverless cars? We spoke to an expert to get the answers.

How do innovations reach public acceptance? Professor Armin Grunwald knows a thing or two about that. The technology assessor advises the German parliament on the impact that new technologies have on society. “Sometimes my job is to think about technologies that don’t even exist yet,” he tells us. Automated driving and driverless cars are key topics for him: fully automated cars already exist – but it will take years until they will be on our roads in large numbers.  We asked him how technology failures could change the public perception – and what carmakers need to do to prevent this.

 

2025AD: How do you approach assessing the risks of automated and driverless cars?

 

Armin Grunwald: The first question I ask myself with any technology: what is really new about it – and how is it embedded in a historical development? If you look at the anti-lock braking system or park assistants, you will find that the past decades have already seen a trend towards vehicle automation. But fully autonomous driving will mean a new level: you entrust the car with full responsibility for your safety. This raises a lot of questions. We should, however, not jump to conclusions prematurely. What some people consider a risk, others will see as a chance.

 

2025AD: What is necessary for a new technology to gain public acceptance?
 

Grunwald: A technology will achieve a high level of acceptance if the end user clearly recognizes its advantages. Take the smartphone: even people who worry about mobile phone radiation have one. The benefits are so convincing that the end user is prepared to accept a certain risk. I think we can compare this to the automated car. It will likely make driving a lot safer and more comfortable. We will have to address possible risks. But I do not expect them to be crucial for public acceptance.

 

2025AD: Human drivers are responsible for thousands of road deaths each year – strangely without much of a public outcry. But what happens if automated technology fails? Will people accept casualties caused by machines?

 

Grunwald: To a certain degree, our society can cope with technology failures. That means if the amount of damage, the number of people affected and the number of fatalities do not exceed a certain level. “Normal” work accidents, even mining disasters, caused by technical errors, prove this. What leads to acceptance problems are major catastrophes – like Chernobyl or Fukushima. I do not think such a worst case is realistic for autonomous driving.

RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE - 2

2025AD: But the media is extensively covering minor incidents that happen during autonomous test rides – questioning the safety of the self-driving cars. Assuming a driverless car causes a fatal accident: can mass media sensationalism destroy the technology’s reputation?

 

Grunwald: I have no doubt: at some point, this complex technology in some specific situation will have a malfunction and cause an accident. And people will be harmed by it. This will spur debates. Then we will need to look at the overall statistic: currently, humans are responsible for more than 90 percent of all accidents. If autonomous driving can reduce a large proportion of those road deaths, the public will accept it. Even if the systems fail occasionally, it is not likely that people will reject the technology as a whole.

 

2025AD: Will the car manufacturer become the target of public rage?

 

Grunwald: In the 1980s, rumors spread in the United States about Audi vehicles with automatic transmissions that accelerated unintendedly. Audi reacted too hesitantly and the mass media covered the incidents extensively. For years to come, Audi suffered from massive slumps in sales. This can happen to single manufacturers and cause serious damage to them. Media sensationalism is part of the world that we live in. But on the other hand, public scrutiny is the prerequisite of a democratic society. It motivates companies to develop safe products.

 

2025AD: The car industry is getting closer to autonomous driving step-by-step, gradually implementing more Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. Is this the right approach?

 

Grunwald: Yes. It is important that there is no hasty introduction. I know there is a lot of competitive pressure. Every manufacturer wants to be the first with an autonomous vehicle on the market. But immature technology can lead to severe acceptance problems. Customers would simply stop buying autonomous vehicles. The market would regulate itself. Accidents on a massive scale could also provoke politics to react and ban the technology – comparable to the German government abandoning nuclear power after the Fukushima catastrophe. But to be clear: my impression is that car manufacturers are acting very responsibly.

 

2025AD: How should the industry communicate on the topic?

 

Grunwald: First of all, it should focus on explaining the benefits of the technology to the end user. Arguments like ‘This will create a lot of jobs’ are not enough to convince the public. Secondly, transparency is key. The industry should openly communicate problems. In our mediatized society, the worst strategy is to try to cover things up. That increases the damage. It makes more sense to admit frankly that complex systems have their pitfalls. And thirdly: enter into a dialogue with the customers, listen to them and build trust! Carmakers should not belittle the customers’ concerns. Oftentimes such a dialogue serves as an inspiration for improving the own product.

 

2025AD: What’s your projection: if we look 10 to 15 years ahead, will automated driving be accepted by our society?

 

Grunwald: I am not a prophet, but I assume that by 2030, autonomous vehicles will be a common sight on our roads. The automation of our traffic system will by no means be completed. But I can imagine that we will be used to the technology by then. Our society will have embraced automated driving.

About our expert:

 

Professor Armin Grunwald is the Head of the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag and advises parliamentarians. He also holds the Chair of Philosophy and Ethics of Technology at Karlsruhe University. In 2015, he published an assessment of the risk constellations of autonomous driving.

 

Will one fatal error be enough to cause public rage against automated driving? What’s the difference between a fatal accident with a human-driven car and an autonomous car? What do you think? Discuss in the comments!

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