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21st century Luddites target self-driving cars

What happened?

Self-driving cars, and their test drivers, have been confronted by angry citizens in dozens of cases. They have been hit by other cars or forced off the road, tires have been slashed, rocks were thrown at them and one was even held at gunpoint. Most reports seem to come from Arizona, where Waymo (Google) is testing its cars 24/7, but Cruise (GM) has experienced comparable incidents in San Francisco. In a similar fashion, other autonomous devices, such as security robots have been attacked as well.

What does this mean?

The stories behind these attacks may vary from case to case, but it certainly seems as if there is a group of people who regard these vehicles as manifestations of elitist technology (and an industry) that will take their jobs and bring them little in return. As such, these attacks remind us of the 19th century Luddites in England, who attacked the machines and factories that spelled progress and wealth for some, but decline and poverty for others. Digital technology may have elicited similar emotions for years now, but, for protesters, there is little to destroy. Today, as digital technology makes its way into our physical environment (including a Silicon Valley monument), this is about to change.

What’s next?

Recent studies (and Trump) have questioned the near-term chances of autonomous vehicles for reasons of safety and costs.Little attention, however, is paid to risks of societal backlash. These vehicles (including all sorts of delivery robots and drones) will be dependent on favorable regulations and possibly infrastructural adjustments (e.g. dedicated lanes or drop-off zones for robotaxis). Developers of autonomous vehicles (and other devices) thus have to convince the public that their technology will genuinely come to benefit a broad swath of society. This calls for a somewhat different mindset on the part of Silicon Valley, as the kind of blitzkriegtactics used by Uber and Airbnb (i.e. disrupt first, ask permission later) will not work this time.And, indeed, they have taken note: unlike their 19th century predecessors (who occasionally shot at protestors), Waymo and others have adopted a soft approach and, even though their cars record everything in detail, never press charges against attackers