As Waymo One’s autonomous taxis begin operating commercially on the roads of Phoenix, Arizona, albeit with a safety driver — not because it’s a legal requirement, but to assuage any fears passengers might still have about travelling in a driverless vehicle, the media has begun speculating about how our cities are about to change. At the same time, there has been an angry response from those unable to accept the idea of change that will prevent millions of road deaths, who unsurprisingly have responded in true Luddite fashion: several safety drivers have reported threats, flat tires or attempts to run them off the road.
Resistance to new technology is always rooted in a fear of the unknown and typically takes the form of generalizing or exaggerating a few specific problems. Some players, notably Uber, may have fanned the flames by rushing their test phases, but in practice, these are simply part of a process of standardizing technology, a stage all technologies must pass through. Waymo is trying to minimize police intervention and drivers are only filing complaints in cases where it is really necessary, instead playing down isolated incidents that will soon be remembered merely as examples of how some in our society take longer to adapt or feel threatened by change.
Let’s not forget: this is still 2018, and the Waymo fleet is already on the roads of Phoenix with paying customers. Vehicles driven by the most experienced drivers in the world, that have already notched up millions of kilometers, and that are not experiencing any of the problems the soothsayers predicted: We have not seen autonomous vehicles having to decide whether to save the life of a baby whose buggy has rolled out into the traffic or to protect the passenger it’s carrying, and there have only been a few very minor incidents. What’s more, people seem to like the idea of self-driving vehicles: the waiting lists to try one out are getting longer and longer.
The next phase will have a bigger impact. Soon, we will see autonomous taxis in other cities in Arizona, as well as California, without a safety driver: will people start leaving their cars at home as competition increases and more car sharing options become available? In the coming months, as the business potential is seen, self-driving vehicles will spread to more and more cities. We are witnessing the commercial arrival of a technology with enormous potential, which will soon change many of our preconceived ideas about transport and driving, and that will have a huge influence on many aspects of our lives. And 2018 isn’t over yet.
(En español, aquí)