This article was originally featured in the edition: TaaS Magazine - Issue 2

The human touch: Boosting social acceptance of driverless tech

Trepidation about innovation is common "“ and driverless cars are no exception to the rule. Could humanizing self-driving tech help to combat negative perceptions? Or does the answer lie in car design?

Even though around 1.2 million lives are lost in traffic accidents around the world each year "“ and more than 90% of collisions are caused by human error "“ polls show that people are still more comfortable having humans in control of cars instead of machines. And this is with the acceptance of driver assistance systems growing among new vehicle buyers, familiarizing them with the concept of the car taking over certain driving tasks, such as automatic emergency braking.

But trepidation about new technology is common, and self-driving tech is the latest victim in a long history of anxiety among consumers when it comes to groundbreaking innovation. An article in The Atlantic from 2015 titled "When People Feared Computers" quaintly recalls how the public was troubled by the proliferation of PCs three decades ago, echoing concerns about smartphone use today.

The article also notes that "humans often converge around massive technological shifts with a flurry of anxieties," which perfectly describes the public's current resistance to self-driving cars. One method that has helped people become more accepting of new advances is the anthropomorphizing of technology "“ assigning human characteristics to non-human entities, such as self-driving tech.

Building a driver

Since the beginning of civilization people have anthropomorphized mountains, rivers, animals and other aspects of their natural environment. With technology, this process has taken the form of everything from people naming their cars to Apple giving its voice assistant Siri a sassy sense of humor.

That's why it caught my attention when Waymo CEO John Krafcik recently made a point of saying that the self-driving division of Alphabet Inc. is developing a driver as opposed to autonomous technology. "At Waymo, our goal is to build self-driving vehicles for every trip for every purpose," Krafcik said at a press conference I attended during the New York Auto Show, and where Waymo announced a new partnership with Jaguar. "We can do this because we're building the driver and this same driver can be adapted for all kinds of vehicles," he added.

Anthropomorphizing technology: Is it just human nature? (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Technically speaking, this is not an entirely new concept for Waymo. In early 2016, Google succeeded in having the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration consider its self-driving technology a "driver" under federal law. In a Recode article from the same year Waymo's CTO and VP of engineering Dmitri Dolgov stated that the company's goal was to develop technology that, like a human, can drive any car. What is new, however, is the extent to which the concept is now being communicated.

"As far as the software is concerned, it's like getting into another car," Dolgov said in the article. "You get a rental and maybe it's a little bit bigger and it doesn't quite handle the same way as your own car. It takes you time to get used to, but the core tasks transfer," he added.

Dolgov pointed out that the "driver" that Waymo developed has piloted a Prius, a Lexus SUV, a Chrysler minivan, and the company's own prototype, and will soon drive a Jaguar I-Pace. Like Krafcik, Dolgov added that Waymo's objective isn't to build a car: "We're building a driver," he said.

Google builds a cute car

When Waymo did build its own self-driving vehicle, the Firefly prototype, it created what's been called "the cutest thing" Google ever made. As Waymo wrote in a Medium post, observers have compared the Firefly to a "koala car or gumdrop." Even though Waymo detailed the practical aspects of Firefly's design in the Medium post (and has since retired the prototype in favor of using production cars), its charming look probably wasn't an accident.

Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab and associate director of the New England University Transportation Center at MIT, observes that by building a likeable, non-threatening prototype like Firefly, Google sought to mitigate any perception of risk that self-driving technology may pose to other road users. "It's a case of making a robot look less aggressive," he said.

But Reimer believes that if companies want self-driving tech to be trusted by the public, they should create vehicles that look even less like traditional cars. "They should dehumanize it so it looks like something else," he said.