Commentary Magazine

Driverless Cars and the Perpetual Moral Panic

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

As long as mankind has possessed the capacity to innovate, it has also been able to scare itself half to death.

Technology is disruptive; it seems to represent a threat to habit, ritual, and familiarity. It compels us to rethink how we interact with our world, and sometimes to reinvent ourselves. We call the fear of technology’s unintended consequences “moral panics,” but they could be more accurately described as empathetic panics. Technological innovation does present unique challenges and hazards, and it does disrupt lives—sometimes for the worse. Most of us, however, are the beneficiaries of technological advances. So, to the extent that any panic around a new technology catches on, it is a result of our collective capacity to sympathize with innovation’s victims.

Noting the relative size of this contingent does not reduce the sympathetic value of their condition. Some of those victims pay the ultimate price for society’s technological hunger. Around 10 p.m. on Sunday evening, for example, Tempe, Arizona’s 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was said by police to be walking just outside the crosswalk while pushing a shopping bag-laden bicycle when she was struck by an automated vehicle. She did not survive.

The vehicle was traveling at 38 miles-per-hour in a 35-mile-per-hour zone, and the car made no attempt to brake, police said. Yet, according to the driver (yes, there was a driver behind the wheel at the time), Herzberg, who may have been homeless, walked out in front of the car before there was time for anyone—driver or vehicle—to react. “[I]t’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode,” said Tempe Police Department Chief Sylvia Moir, “based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

It appeared, though, that Uber—the firm that operated this automated vehicle—was prepared for the public relations nightmare surrounding a death attributable to their new technology. The company announced within minutes that it would suspend the testing of its autonomous cars, which are operating in four cities across North America. That seems like a reactionary course for a company testing a new technology like this to take, but Uber knows what the real threat to its business model is: politicians.

The urban political class, which is still indebted to livery unions, has long sought to regulate Uber and its competitors into an uncompetitive position. Conservatives, too, fear the automated future. A driverless world would be one in which freedom of movement is dramatically curtailed. The modern political imperative to bubble-wrap the world’s sharp edges is forever intruding on individual liberty, and, when an alternative exists, a driver’s license may soon be stigmatized as a virtual license to kill. After all, there were over 40,000 automotive fatalities in 2017—the second consecutive year with death rates so high. Driverless vehicles are coming, and there will be regulations around them; they are already in the works. The is only the question of how heavy-handed those laws will be. The temptation to put the brakes on this paradigm-shifting innovation will be immense.

Driverless vehicles will displace millions of laborers. In a driverless world, over-the-road truckers and cab drivers will be all but eliminated. Far fewer families and individuals will own a vehicle, preferring instead to rent them on a need-based schedule. The local dealership will suffer as a result.  This technology will transform not just the American economy but the American self-image. No longer will ours be a nation defined by explorers and travelers seeking out new frontiers on the open road. The highway will, instead, be the domain of the robots.

But this inevitable development will produce more winners than losers, as has virtually every other technological advancement of its kind. A sprawling study of innovations dating back to 1871 by the consultancy firm Deloitte should prove reassuring. Over the last 150 years, innovation has eliminated a significant number of dangerous or tedious jobs. The agricultural sector, for example, has slimmed down significantly as technology has replaced labor, as has the weaving, laundering, heavy industry, and secretarial sectors.

At the same time, however, technological advances have yielded the rapid growth of creative, technological, business, and what the study’s authors called “caring” sectors of the economy. Moreover, the increased employment in service sectors like hospitality, food and bar service, and hairdressers suggest that technology has increased individual efficiency and spending power, giving people more time to patronize the economy’s luxury services. The Deloitte study’s authors conclude that the public debate has been skewed unduly in favor of the minority who are disadvantaged by technological advances, and away from the vast majority who benefit from them.

Try telling that to the family of the woman who has the unfortunate claim on being the first person killed by an autonomous vehicle. It would take a hard heart to dismiss that pain or to charge headlong into an innovative future without concern for those who are dislocated along the way. That’s no society I would want to live in, and I’m glad I do not. The U.S. public sector, like much of the West, provides adjustment assistance and job training programs, unemployment insurance, and social welfare disbursements to ease that pain.

The fear that economic and moral degradation will accompany technological advancement is as old as technological advancement itself. The development of cheap paper manufactured from wood and straw pulp led to the proliferation of “dime novels,” which anti-vice crusaders of the mid-19th century warned, “distill an insidious poison of immorality into fresh and candid minds.” Locomotives were said to travel at speeds the human body could not endure and would eliminate vast and lucrative industries around canal networks. Telephony was said to be the work of the devil; farmers and landowners were known to tear down the lines that sprouted up across their property. Cathode-ray tubes in visual display terminals were sources of electromagnetic radiation that was believed to be harmful to pregnant women (they weren’t). The internet has yielded a trove of moral panics. Pornography is ubiquitous and soul-deadening; Google is “making us stupid”; YouTube provides predators a platform to corrupt our children; smartphones are addictive; social media is controlling weak minds through the power of suggestion.

It isn’t hard to see how the panics of today will be looked upon by our progeny with the scorn and skepticism we view the outrages of the 19th century. Children now have access to the panoply of human achievement and understanding, literally, in the palm of their hands. They are a part of an interpersonally connected world and the mutual understanding it fosters, thus rendering the ultimate scourge of man—great power wars—less conceivable. The “caring” sector’s expansion has led to life-saving innovations—like statin drugs—that are so ubiquitous we regard them as mundanities. And the inevitable future dominated by automated cars will allow people to maximize the time spent in transit for more economically valuable and self-fulfilling activities, which will ultimately enrich and benefit society as a whole.

That realization won’t change any hearts. As long as there is technology, it will conflict with tradition. That conflict is, in fact, one of the few constants of the human condition.

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