Futurists and technologists promote a vision of the autonomous future that is shiny and bright. While that vision might come to pass, there’s a reality that it overlooks. We are a divided, tribal and political people. There are no signs of middle ground on issues spanning from abortion to education to gun control. So why should we expect self-driving cars, which portend such a huge change to our way of life, to be any different?
Are we heading for a car culture war? The signs point to yes. The question is: “What are the front lines of that fight going to be?
Let’s examine four potential flashpoints:
First, will the technology itself divide us? America is perhaps uniquely a car-focused nation. Most Americans identify themselves as “car people.” Eight in 10 see their cars as an important part of their identity. When it comes to desire for autonomous vehicles, there is a small but noticeable split along political lines. But new technology is central to America’s view of itself. The country that landed on the moon is unlikely to turn up its nose at fancy robot cars. More likely than not, autonomous vehicles will become a new status symbol on both the left and the right.
Second, who pays for this technology? Infrastructure to support an autonomous vehicle future involves more than just buying new cars. Depending on the particular vision, this future requires an alternate fuel system, vehicles that communicate with each other, or a smart city for vehicles to navigate. These things cost money, and the question of funding is undeniably political. Will statehouses like Illinois’, where representatives of rural communities tend to wield significant power, float the development of smart infrastructure for cities like Chicago?
Third, who is displaced by this advancement? Autonomous vehicles will bring winners: the technology companies that bring AVs to market, the innovators building a new support system around them and (presumably) the lives saved by a safer system. However, there will be losers too, particularly all those people whose livelihoods depend on driving or car culture. They might lose their income, but they’ll still vote. How will the planners of this future care for the needs of the people whose careers they are rendering obsolete?
Fourth, who writes the rules and regulations? Several experts in this issue of What the Future talk about how this autonomous future needs to be structured or risk becoming a congested, ad-saturated nightmare. Nothing divides Americans more readily than rules and regulations. The first time someone is denied access to something they have previously taken for granted, we will have a political uprising on our hands.
The safety improvements, potential cost-saving, and increased convenience might well prove a trifecta of benefits that can trump any sort of political discord. Having powerful industries like automotive, tech, and logistics backing the movement will likely help smooth the way. But social change on this scale does not happen without conflict, and those who do not plan for it will be the first to see their plans derailed by our age of uncertainty.