Part 2 in a series of columns about Autonomous Cars

In the aftermath of Ubers's recent fatal crash in Tempe, which involved a driverless car, there has been a great deal of speculation about the future of the driverless automobile. As is often the case, trying to see beyond the near-term fear and natural trepidation, which accompanies handing over control of life and death decisions to machines, can be exceptionally difficult. Yet, this isn't the first time we've encountered the driverless dilemma. There's another example that's nearly 100 years old.

Elevating Drivers

Coronado Island, just south of San Diego, is home to one of the world's Grand Dame resorts, the Hotel Del Coronado. The Hotel Del was built in 1888. Much has changed at the Hotel Del in over a century. However, one thing hasn't. In the center of the magnificent main Victorian building, is the Otis #61, a brass accordion-doored manual elevator that still shuttles guests, just as it has for the last one-hundred and thirty years. However, this elevator has a driver.

For hotel guests who never even knew that elevators were once run exclusively by "drivers," the novelty is something they're drawn to. Still, the look of apprehension and trepidation on many of their faces is clear as they approach an elevator that needs to be driven. You can imagine that they're thinking, "Is that really safe?," "Why can't it operate on its own, the way real elevators do?" or "What if the driver makes a mistake and starts it up just as you're getting in or out?" After all, he's human, and humans are known to make mistakes.

Interestingly, although elevator operators were common through the mid-1900s, there were driverless elevators as far back as the early 1900s. There was just one problem. Nobody trusted them. Given the choice between the stairs and a lonely automated elevator, the elevator would remain empty. It wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century that the tipping point came along for the driverless elevator as the result of a strike by the elevator operators' union in New York City in 1945.

The strike was devastating, costing the city an estimated one hundred million dollars. Suddenly, there was an economic incentive to go back to the automatic elevator. Over the next decade there was a massive effort to build trust in automatic elevators, which resulted in the elimination of tens of thousands of elevator operator jobs. 

Few of us will today step into an elevator and even casually think about the way it operates, how safe it is, or what the risks are. If you find yourself at the Hotel Del and decide to take the elevator, stop and think about just how radical change can be in reshaping our attitudes about what's safe and normal.

Granted, an automatic elevator is a world apart from an autonomous vehicle, but the fundamental issue with the adoption of "driverless," in both cases, isn't so much the technology, which can be much safer without a human driver, it's about trusting a machine to do something as well as we believe a human can do it--in a word, it's all about perception.

Still doubtful? Perhaps you're one of the few people who have a fear of elevators? After all, twenty-seven people die yearly as the result of faulty automatic elevators. Elevators definitely kill.

However, you might also be interested in learning that, according to the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics, a whopping one thousand six hundred people die from falling down stairs. I'll save you the math; that means you're sixty times as likely to have a fatal accident taking the stairs. Unfortunately, numbers alone rarely change perception.

In an interview for my upcoming book Revealing The Invisible, with Amin Kashi, director of  autonomous driving at Mentor, a Siemens business, he told me, "I'm sure we will look back on this in the not too distant future and think to ourselves, how could we have wasted all of that time commuting, how could we have dealt with the inherent lack of safety in the way that we used to drive. All these issues will become so obvious and so clear. From where we stand right now we're accustomed to a certain behavior so we live with it, but I think we will be amazed that we actually got through it."

No doubt that it will take time to build a sufficient level of trust in autonomous vehicles. But there's equally little doubt that one day our children's children will have a look of apprehension and trepidation on their faces as they approach a car that needs to be driven by a human.

I imagine that they'll be thinking, "Is that really safe?"

Published on: Mar 30, 2018