Why Would Anyone Fear a Self-Driving Car?

The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco.

The Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco. Eric Risberg/AP

An advocate for the technology argues that the leap of faith it demands is one that Americans have already made.

To understand what the world will be like in ten years, it isn’t enough to look back at how different things were a decade ago and presume the differences will be comparable. The pace of technological change is speeding up so quickly, says Astro Teller, who leads the arm of Google that aims at “moonshots,” that one must look back 30 years to experience the same amount of discontinuity we’ll feel ten years hence.

A decade out, he continued, half of all cars on the road will be self-driving (and there would be more but for the fact that today’s cars are too expensive an asset to junk immediately).

The remarks took place Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which the Aspen Institute co-hosts with The Atlantic. And it prompted a question from moderator Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Trying to imagine a rapid shift toward self-driving cars, Sorkin wondered if the public would be ready as quickly as the technology. “Today there are 35,000 fatalities on the road using cars that we all drive just in the United States,” he said. “What number does that have to go down to that it becomes politically palatable, to the public, that they get in the car, and there may very well be a fatality as the result of a computer?”

In Teller’s view, we’re nearly there already.

“Almost every single person in this room already made that choice, because you got on a plane,” he told the Aspen crowd. “Planes fly roughly 99 percent of the miles that they fly by computer. It's now to the place that it is not safe for humans to fly in a lot of conditions. It's mandated that the computer fly because the computer can do it better.”

He posed this question to skeptics:

If you could have a robotic surgeon that makes one mistake in 10,000, or a human that made one mistake in 1,000, are you really going to go under the knife with the human? Really? We are already at that stage. I think self-driving cars are not in some weird other bucket. We make this decision all the time.

I suspect he is right, if only because more than half of young people already say in surveys that they look forward to self-driving cars, and the ubiquity of ride-sharing services with human drivers is already conditioning car passengers to give over more control. As a counterpoint, however, there are lots of Americans who choose to drive rather than fly, fearing the latter more despite knowing that it is statistically much safer.

With that in mind, I pose the question to readers who shudder at the thought of getting in a self-driving car, even after they are well tested and statistically safer than a car piloted by a human. Are you able to articulate what it is about the self-driving car that scares you? I fear sharks, despite the long odds against one biting me, because they are prehistoric sea monsters who rise up to unexpectedly bite people with razor sharp teeth. Dying by a combination of being eaten alive and drowning seems unusually scary. Why is getting in a self-driving car scarier than getting in a taxi?

The entire opening session of the Aspen Ideas Festival is here, with the Astro Teller interview starting at the 36-minute mark.