Popular Perceptions May Hold Automated Vehicles Back

Alex Vilisides, MJLST Symposium Editor

Last October, when the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology (MJLST) co-sponsored a symposium entitled “Automated Vehicles: The Legal and Policy Road Ahead,” experts from a broad range of areas came together to discuss the challenges of self-driving cars. There was excitement that the technology was closer than ever, but also sober discussions of the many legal, ethical, and practical challenges that lay ahead. Recent media reaction to a new academic study emphasizes a very basic challenge: autonomous cars must overcome the challenge of being weird.

On April 9, 2015, University of Michigan announced in a press release the findings of a new study concluding that use of automated vehicles could increase the incidence of motion sickness. The study asked 3,200 adults what activities they would do in a car that drove itself. From the responses, such as reading, texting or watching television, the study concluded that “6-12 percent of Americans adults riding in fully self-driving vehicles” could expect to “suffer moderate or severe motion sickness.” Of course, the “frequency and severity of motion sickness is influenced” not by the inherent nature of an automated vehicle, but “by the activity that one would be involved in instead of driving.”

Outlets from NBC News to Popular Mechanics to The Guardian picked up the story. “Self-Driving Cars Might Make You Vomit,” declared a headline about the study on the Huffington Post. The cost-benefit imbalance is staggering. If people are able to implement technology that may be capable of making travel safer, cheaper, more accessible and less destructive to our environment it may come at a cost. That cost, these articles point out, is that if people choose to read or watch television in a self-driving car, some fraction of the population may be at greater risk to experience motion sickness. Despite this stark contrast, the dominant media narrative is served by focusing more on the weird, uncomfortable experience of riding in a self-driving car.

It is unlikely that any of the extraordinary articles published in MJLST’s upcoming symposium issue, focusing on automated vehicles, will receive this type of media attention. This is because an article about these vehicles making people vomit fits the dominant narrative: automated vehicles are weird. They a strange new technology and a harbinger of the robot-controlled dystopian future. Information that fits this narrative is far more affecting for an average reader than a rational cost-benefit analysis. And this weirdness has consequences. If the benefits are as great as advocates claim, the delay in adoption caused by social pressures and popularity has real consequences. The adoption of mass technologies is not pre-ordained. The weirdness battle is one that advocates of automated cars must fight if society is going to adopt this potentially transcendent technology.