Will We Ever Trust Self-Driving Cars?

The twin tragedies of a self-driving Uber car killing a pedestrian and an autonomous Tesla vehicle crashing into a road barrier, an accident which proved fatal to the test-pilot, have called into question a technology that has recently been hailed as the future of transportation. Predictably, there has been a public outcry against the companies in question – Uber and Tesla – for not guaranteeing proper safety. More broadly, many people are now rethinking the emerging technology itself. Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and world-renowned authority on autonomous vehicles, says the future of these vehicles depends on how their developers react to such disasters, now and going forward. The cornerstone of these companies’ policies must be trust.

On one hand, says Smith, companies that are experimenting with new and controversial technologies should always admit mistakes and embrace transparency. “Uber needs to be unflinchingly candid and unfailingly helpful in the multiple investigations that are likely to result,” wrote Smith in a blog for Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society (CIS) after the first, but before the second, accident. “In this crash, a multitude of data will likely be available to help understand what happened—but only if those data can be believed.” The company that tries to obscure the facts, lay blame on others, and deny wrongdoing will quickly be judged and sentenced in the court of public opinion. And the progress of the technology in question will be set back years, if not longer.

Trust is therefore not only the safeguard of corporate reputation, but the guarantor that public opinion and, by extension, public policy will allow further technological progress. Without obtaining trust first, the technologies themselves can be rejected, and lucrative opportunities missed.

Bryant Walker Smith, who has been quoted by high level publications like the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Scientific American, will be elaborating on these principles in an upcoming paper at newlypossible.org. In the meantime, follow his insights on emerging technology via Twitter at @bwalkersmith.

Brian Sherry: