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The Fear of Autonomous Mobility

We’ve seen them in the movies for over 100 years – flying cars, flying saucers, autonomous vehicles of every shape and size and of course the stubborn HAL refusing to close those damn pod bay doors in 2001. All of these depicted various imagined versions of a future computerized transportation system. And we loved them. We couldn’t wait to live in that cool future world.

But wait. Now that future world is almost here and we find ourselves in this unique episode of the human race, it’s not quite as popular as we’d imagined. Science fiction is becoming science fact and not everyone is super happy about it. In fact there is a growing trend against increasing autonomous mobility.

The first autonomous cars have already hit the streets, flying cars are inching ever closer (in fact Uber predicts 4 years before you call one with your app), and the whole way we get from A to B is quickly evolving with new shared mobility options launching every day from electric scooters to crowdfunding bus rides, subscription car services and every possible nuance inbetween.

With this change in mass mobility comes increasing opposition, something technology is not used to. When Steve Jobs launched the iphone there weren’t riots to make people go back to flip phones. When DVD killed VHS and before that Betamax, no one cared. It made sense in everyone’s mind. It was clear progression. That’s where autonomous mobility has its challenges. Not everyone is convinced it is progression and that’s slowing it down.

Take Waymo – the autonomous Google owned rideshare which has tested millions of miles and will officially launch later this year. Users will be able to hail a ride, just like Uber and Lyft now, but the car will be driverless. Before these cars are even launched though, during tests they have been attached with rocks, knives and guns. One local in Arizona simply stood in front of one of the cars to stop it passing. Others have tried to run them off the road or simply scream at them. There is a real and genuine negativity with regards to the idea of a car driving itself.

For some, America stands for muscle car, for the very idea of driving down the open road seeking the ‘pursuit of happiness’. It’s about freedom, the wind in your hair, the ability to go anywhere, do anything. Having a robot do that? It’s, well, un-American almost.

For others it’s a fear of technology taking over. It’s that fear of science fiction becoming science fact and once the cars drive themselves before we know it Arnold Schwarzenegger will have to come back from the future to save us from the robot uprising. Connected cars also take us one step closer to 1984 with big brother watching your every move, every turn, knowing every moment where you are in your computerized tin on wheels. And with tech comes hacking – nearly every one of us has been the victim of at least one hack, most of us dozens. Many fear robot cars will be just as vulnerable.

Then there is the fear of employment – researchers say some eight million plus people globally could be displaced by autonomous taxis. Many Lyft and Uber drivers are already working a second or third job as a driver so what options does that leave them? The on-demand economy has created a job that most people can easily do – as long as you can drive and follow on screen directions. So what options are left if cars start to drive themselves? No doubt new economies will open up but there could be an ugly transition.

Safety is yet another fear. Sure it sounds safer and robots are cold unemotional and aren’t checking their Facebook feed while they drive, so in theory they should be much safer drivers. But it’s going to be a long long time before the roads are all autonomous. And in the interim robots have to outsmart crazy drivers, drunk drivers, mad drivers. And it’s difficult to program against crazy, drunk and mad. In fact when Bellhop launched its groundbreaking rideshare survey a few months ago in conjunction with RideGuru, we found there was significant pushback to having driverless cars. From over 1000 respondents, over 64% said they would not feel safe without a driver. And the same figure wanted a choice between a driver and driverless car when booking a ride.

Of course, there are potentially huge advantages of autonomy – fewer accidents (long term), increased productivity (imagine being able to work for your hour car commute every day), increased socialisation (you can actually focus more on your passengers (or your phone!), plus of course optimal routes, lower emissions, especially as more and more cars become electric. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Better city planning with more data, economies of scale, less car ownership and more shared car ownership. Changing the way we move together impacts so many areas of professional and personal life.

Cars are just the beginning though. Uber is heavily investing in flying cars and just this week announced it is looking at autonomous bikes and scooters. Imagine seeing a bike just cycling itself to go and be charged or to going to where a rider wants to be picked up. Social media widely captioned this ‘for some reason’ as there were many heads scratched with comments like ‘it’s unclear why you would need a self driving scooter’. Perhaps this is one step too far when we’re not even comfortable with step one?

Back in 1982 the original Blade Runner predicted flying taxis, speaking computers, digital billboards and the miserable effects of global warming. Of course it all looked very cool back then. But looks can be deceiving. It seems like most of those predictions actually came true apart from flying taxis. Perhaps if those who are against an autonomous future made as much fuss about the effects of global warming, we’d have sunnier skies eclipsed by flying cars.

One thing is for sure though, the future will come. The way we move is changing forever. And we’ll all have a lot more choices about how we travel. Some may not say for the better though. Perhaps we’ll all get super fat as we sit on bikes that pedal themselves and sit in cars that drive themselves while we eat pizza. Personally, I just hope whatever I travel in has a good stereo.