Life Is a Self-Driving Highway

Will Americans be able to adapt to the autonomous car?

This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

How hard will it be to let your car do the driving?

Over the past 20 years, cultural psychology research has confirmed what pop-culture purveyors and marketers have long suspected: that what defines American culture is an emphasis on independence, autonomy, and choice. We belt out songs like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and patronize restaurants with slogans like, “Have it your way, right away.” While we embrace our unalienable rights, we abhor the value that other cultures place on collective conformity and obedience to authority. After the 2008 Beijing Olympic Game opening ceremony, for example, Americans collected stories about how the Chinese participants in the ceremony were expected to sacrifice for the collective, wearing adult diapers and enduring heatstroke so the nationalistic show could go on.

This American emphasis on the individual’s sovereignty poses a problem for new technologies designed precisely to deny personal agency. Autonomous technological agents—from military drones to the self-driving car—are increasingly prevalent. Their potential benefits and conveniences are immense. Yet as the currently cutting-edge becomes commonplace, these technologies could bump up against the prized American autonomy.

The United States drives more than any other society, and the self-driving car provides the glorious possibility of a hands-free cross-country road trip. But how will it harmonize with American drivers’ varied preferences for tailgating, conscientious speed-limit-monitoring, passive aggression toward walkway pedestrians, or highway-traversing pursuits of the fastest lane? General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Volvo, and Google are each currently testing driverless cars, with intentions to make the vehicle available for mass consumption by 2018. Recently, Nevada became the first state to pass legislation asking the Department of Motor Vehicles to formulate guidelines for driverless cars.

While engineers are perfecting the technology, they still must grapple with the drivers, who must both trust and enjoy the automated-car experience. Making a driver-free car safe and effective requires overlooking the uniqueness of each individual’s driver personality. Research suggests that autonomous technological agents like service robots and anthropomorphic computer interfaces can diminish users’ experiences of control. And we hate to give up control.

This conflict is distinct from two more common technology-related scares: that technology is diminishing our basic intelligence and social skills; and that humans will become enslaved by robot overlords. The first is rooted in a romanticized nostalgia for simplicity. This fear, which Nicholas Carr expressed in both a 2008 Atlantic article and the recent book The Shallows, forgets that previous technological advances such as the telephone or printing press did not somehow set Homo sapiens back several evolutionary steps. The second is rooted in science fiction and represents more of an egotistical, anthropocentric concern about humans’ place atop the hierarchy of agents. Neither of these concerns is as legitimate a problem as the possibility that autonomous technology might simply piss people off.

We may think we want convenience, but that feeling may change to frustration when this convenience comes at the expense of individual expression and choice. Drivers reserve the right to choose the route they take to their destination, the lane in which they drive, the speed at which they travel, and their level of safety awareness—all decisions that an autonomous car might make instead, as the “driver” becomes more of a passenger. Getting stick-shift diehards to surrender their fighter-pilot-level mastery of the controls and adopt the autonomous car will probably be even more difficult. The consequences of not recognizing the conflict between convenience and driver autonomy could mean monumental amounts of money, time, and resources wasted on this effort, if consumers are hesitant to adopt it.

That’s one reason why I am currently studying whether the self-driving car will deny Americans their sense of self. Ever want to throttle your inanimate GPS because its suggested route isn’t what you know to be best? Imagine that feeling of frustration magnified. Obviously, that’s an experience that car manufacturers investing in self-driving autos are desperate to avoid.

So how can auto manufacturers keep autonomous vehicles from conflicting with American core values? They can focus on the rare situations when people prefer to surrender agency. For example, in high-stakes emotional scenarios, people derive more satisfaction from forfeiting control than from making a potentially tragic decision on their own. When a parent must decide whether to continue treatment for a premature newborn infant that will result in severe neurological impairment or to discontinue life support, relinquishing decision power can be difficult. But people often feel better when the decision is forced out of their hands and given to a medical professional.

This is an extreme case. But good marketing of driverless cars will suggest that these vehicles make the split-second decisions that you would prefer not to make—like whether to slam on the brakes or rush through the yellow light, or whether to swerve to avoid the deer that scampers across the road. The advent of electronic stability control, a technology that minimizes swerving and skidding by automatically applying brake pressure, has been extremely effective in reducing crashes. It would be a shame if autonomy concerns prevent all drivers from taking advantage of such features.

The case of religion and prayer offers a similar situation. People like to assume personal control of their lives, but in high-stakes emotion-laden situations such as waiting to hear the outcome of an HIV test or tending to a loved one undergoing chemotherapy, believers have little difficulty transferring these outcomes into “God’s hands.” Developers would be wise to convey the superhuman qualities of this technology and to emphasize that the driverless car may know things that you do not. It is already difficult to avoid using the terminology of intellect when describing the increasingly anthropomorphic technology that is coming to dominate daily life. As a class, these technologies are called artificial intelligence. They are “thinking” machines or “smart” robots. The iTunes function that creates a full playlist from a single song is called “Genius.” It is a delicate task to convey the superior intelligence of autonomous technologies without offending the human- and self-centered consumer (recall the late, annoying Microsoft Word paper clip, Clippy), but doing so effectively can facilitate user interaction with these technologies.

At a more basic level than making the agent appear God-like, car manufacturers will do well to recognize that people are willing to defer to experts. In rare cases, submissive drivers have followed their GPS devices into bodies of water, onto roads closed for the winter, or, in one tragic case, into the middle of a desert. leading to the death of a young passenger. These examples represent the minority of cases. However, they convey people’s respect for perceived expertise, even technology-based expertise, and developers will want to emphasize the autonomous vehicles’ credibility to facilitate their adoption. If marketers and engineers consider the psychology of potential consumers, we may enter a future in which self-driving car owners will be amazed that we once dared to handle steering and braking on our own.

In America, we prize convenience. We impatiently anticipate greater conveniences, such as a hands-free car that will allow us to multitask at 60 miles per hour. Yet as the autonomous car and similar technology become consumer realities, they will bump up against the personal agency that Americans hold so dear. Recently, National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland expressed skepticism that Americans would be comfortable adapting to the driverless car. He’s unsure whether we’ll feel safe handing control over. But if the automated car is to take over, manufacturers need to think about more than just safety.