Why do we hate Waymo's self-driving vans so much?

Waymo Article - September 3 2018.jpg

Waymo's vehicles fail to merge onto highways. Apple's low-profile Lexus RX450h is rear-ended by a Nissan Leaf. Tesla Model S hits just another fire-truck. But people seem to be increasingly upset by a single aspect of this new-mobility-boom: autonomous vans take a full three seconds at every stop sign.   

One woman said that she almost hit one of the company’s minivans because it suddenly stopped while trying to make a right turn, while another man said that he gets so frustrated waiting for the cars to cross the intersection that he has illegally driven around them.
— Source: CNBC

When it comes to autonomous vehicles being tested in city streets, the majority of the recent complaints made by everyday people focus on convenience. There has been no major report of people voicing concerns about the safety aspect of self-driving cars. One could argue that the reason behind this is that, as it stands, the comparison of safety statistics is rather futile: accidents involving human drivers can happen anywhere, whereas self-driven vehicles largely operate in low-risk conditions, such as highway driving and start-stop traffic. But even accepting this argument, how does the lack of comparable safety statistics lead the public to vilify self-driving cars based on arguments of convenience?

Are we just brats? 

"Does the (in)convenience-related focus rid the complaints of meaning or value?", one could ask. No, not necessarily. But considering the enormous, life-saving potential of introducing autonomy into transportation, arguments of mere inconvenience come across as slightly impudent. Admittedly, the fact that Waymo vehicles take three seconds before turning at a stop sign can rightly provoke the annoyance of unlucky drivers who are stuck behind the self-driving Pacifica. To what extent, though, are human drivers entitled to complain about a forced change to their potentially dangerous behaviour? Could it be that human drivers are further annoyed that, contrary to conservative human driver who would be more responsive to their honking, Waymo's Pacificas stick to their guns and take the full three seconds to ensure it is safe to proceed? 

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Even the few complaints focusing on safety are characterised by a common attribute - a brazen unawareness of how we, human drivers, are the root cause of most mobility-related problems. You would not be surprised to hear that approximately 95% of accidents are caused by human error. Interestingly, as NHTSA confirms, out of all human error-related accidents, 41% are attributed to recognition errors and 33% to decision errors. As the relevant report explains, recognition errors include driver inattention, internal and external distractions, and inadequate surveillance. Decision errors cover driving too fast for conditions, too fast for the curve, having a false assumption of others’ actions, illegal manoeuvres, and misjudgments of gaps or others’ speed. It is almost comical: most reasons responsible for the majority of accidents are aligned with the behaviours "annoyed human drivers" are stopped from engaging in by self-driving cars. 

Even if one accepts the inconvenience argument as indisputably valid, the ignorance lurking in such statements borders on the farcical. In a city like Phoenix, AZ, which ranks among the worst in the nation for traffic (and one of the worst in the world), people complain about a solution that can decongest the city through autonomous, on-demand shuttle services, and can allow passengers to work during the long hours spent in traffic. The source of such complaints serves to remove any remaining credibility from the inconvenience argument. The main contributors to the problems tormenting the city of Phoenix are drivers of single-occupancy, privately-owned vehicles - a safe assumption would be that these are the exact people annoyed by the behaviour of Waymo's Pacifica vans.

Even if one is dismissive of the "before you point any fingers, make sure your hands are clean" tone of the argument above, they would have to acknowledge, at a bare minimum, the existence of sustainable alternatives to driving: As Arizona PIRG Education Fund reports, between 2007 and 2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million – an increase that is at least suggestive of the usability of the local transportation system. Admittedly, driving may be the only option for people living/working in places not served by the transportation system, but, if Waymo has made driving in Phoenix cumbersome enough to merit complaining, then why not give up driving and use a combination of the public transit system, ride-hailing, and last-mile solutions to get where one needs to be?

Is inclusion the key to harmonious coexistence? 

Despite the flawed nature of the majority of arguments advanced against the testing of autonomous vehicles in real-life situations, the aggrieved citizens of Phoenix have the right to complain. As the late Calestous Juma would argue, a look at history can explain their feelings perfectly. In his book published in 2016, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, the late Harvard Kennedy School professor tried to explain the peculiar pattern of opposition to technological advancement, particularly from generations that have vastly benefitted from it. Through exploring innovation in the past 600 years, he finds that people do not just fear what they do not understand, but instead, they fear the loss of a piece of their identity. Such loss can manifest itself in multiple ways: it could be the loss of one's job due to new tech; it could be the fear of separation from nature.

The key will be to focus on “inclusive innovation,” Calestous said in one of his last online pieces. "We need to ensure that those who are likely to lose from the displacement of old technologies are given ample opportunity to benefit from new ones". In the case of autonomous vehicles (and other, new modes of mobility, such as scooters and e-bikes), every inhabitant of the "revolutionised" city is bound to lose something: it could be their job as a cab or bus driver, 30 seconds of additional sleep, as they now get stuck behind Waymo's Pacifica vans at 10 different stop signs; it could even be the loss of the contrived feeling of independence that driving instils in us. For these reasons, local governments, along with modern mobility companies, such as scooter/bike-sharing, ride-sharing/hailing, and autonomous driving companies, need to make the effort to hear every stakeholder. These people, whether affected or not, need to have a seat on the table. They deserve to have their voices and opinions on how their cities will change heard.

Let's Fix This.

Initiatives such as the recently introduced Bird GovTech Platform's Community Mode, which allows anyone to easily report incidents of unsafe riding, riding on sidewalks, or poor parking, are a good step, albeit just a first one. Waymo's Early Rider programme provides a similar example - with 20,000 applications received for the Phoenix programme, yet only 400 early riders accommodated, there is a huge chunk of feedback that Waymo may be missing out on. Although Waymo's online feedback form allows anyone to provide feedback with regard to Waymo's driving habits, such methods of feedback collection focus almost exclusively on the negative experiences. They should not: even assuming people notice that the robotic, weirdly-driven vehicle has "Waymo" written all over it, will they remember to go on google and look up ways to give Waymo feedback, unless they become really frustrated? I doubt it. This means that any other feedback, whether positive, negative, or related to things other than driving, gets lost. 

Should there be a more direct, inclusive way of collecting opinions which does not limit feedback providers to frustrated drivers waiting behind a Waymo vehicle at a junction? Absolutely. But should the burden of creating such a forum rest solely on the shoulders of the privately-owned companies disrupting transportation? I do not think so. After all, feedback is a two-way street: by making it easier for anyone to provide feedback on what they like and what they don't about the new era of mobility, cities and companies can achieve their ultimate goal: familiarise their constituents with the "robotic taxis", "kids scooters", and "motorised bicycles" that are taking over their cities, and, who knows, maybe even move them from "complainer" to "user" and/or "voter"