Why Is the News so Negative About Self-Driving Cars?

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Whether we like it or not, self-driving cars are coming. Already, there are over 40 companies, like Google, Apple, and GM who are investing heavily in the research and development of the autonomous vehicle.

And yet, people are afraid.

Headlines such as, “Self-driving bus involved in minor accident less than two hours after launch in Las Vegas” and “Self-driving car accidents: Robot drivers are ‘odd, and that’s why they get hit’,” make it seem like autonomous vehicles are neither safe nor ready for mass consumption.

Where does this hysteria come from and why are news organizations so inclined to publicize every sling and arrow that comes from developing such an advanced automated system?

For the answer, we have to look back to 1938, when Orson Wells broadcast his now infamous War of the Worlds, scaring war-weary Americans into believing they were actually being invaded by aliens.

Mass hysteria and panic ensued — well, at least that’s what the newspapers wanted you to think. The next day the New York Times published their front page headline: “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”. Over at the Daily News, their front page read: “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.”

And yet the chaos and panic that this radio drama created were simply not true. According to a PBS documentary, only 2% of 5,000 households surveyed on the night of the radio broadcast was listening to a “play” or “the Orson Welles program.” That means that 98% of Americans were tuned out. Additionally, not many stations were playing Wells’ drama. “In the first place, most people didn’t hear it,” CBS’s Frank Stanton said, splashing a bit of cold water on the narrative these papers were advancing.

Many historians have since argued that because radio was taking over print’s advertising revenue, newspapers found themselves naturally suspicious of the new medium and on the lookout for evidence that validated their skepticism. According to the Bureau of Advertising of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, “newspaper expenditures of the principal general or national advertisers fell from $260,000,000 in 1929 to between $225,000,000 and $230,000,000 in 1930, a drop of about 12%.”  In other words, reporters were trigger-happy when it came to reporting setbacks in an industry they correctly perceived as a threat.

In 1972, a pair of media observers called this phenomenon Media Agenda Setting. Writing in Public Opinion Quarterly, they noted how mass media has the power to shape our understanding and orientation to issues of the day.  “In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position.”

While  McCombs and Shaw put this theory to test in the political realm, we see similar patterns across all sorts of issues — including autonomous vehicles. Instead of covering the research and development of these systems as hopeful moonshots to save millions of lives, we are treated with articles of skepticism and “we’re better than the robots” framing.

When it comes to driving, however, the robots will be much, much better. According to The Atlantic, up to 300,000 American lives could be saved every decade adding: “Globally, there are about 1.2 million traffic fatalities annually, according to the World Health Organization, which means driver-less cars are poised to save 10 million lives per decade.”

Unfortunately, as history reminds us, people are skeptical of change. From the printing press that gave the working class access to books, to the telephone that threatened the telegram industry to coal-powered steamships, challenging the status-quo has always been met with skepticism — especially from financial stakeholders.

Governments, in particular, stand to lose lots of revenue during the transportation transformation. The Brookings Institute tried to quantify some of this. Although they couldn’t quite predict how much revenue local governments stood to lose, they noted as examples that in 2014 Los Angeles alone collected $141 million in parking tickets and 20 other California cities collected $40 million in towing and parking fees. Self-driving cars portend the end of parking tickets. Once the meter expires, self-driving cars will simply move themselves to a new spot.

The losses are expected to extend beyond local coffers. Insurance companies, for example, could see a 40% shrink in their market, according to a KPMG report. Auto repair shops and parking garages are equally exposed. Even urban planning will be affected by the convenience and upheavals of the autonomous vehicle.

With a lot of industries standing to lose something from the self-driving revolution, it’s no wonder the media has taken such a negative tack. This approach, however, is very dangerous. John Bowers, our CEO, agrees: “While there are challenges in every new industry, the media’s obsession with negatively portraying autonomous vehicles risks discouraging the adoption of a life-saving technology. We cannot let loyalty to the status quo prevent us from creating a better world.”

At the end of the day, Autonomous vehicles are here to stay, disrupt,  and progress. We aren’t getting invaded by aliens but our world is about to change — for the better.

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