Hacking and Doomsday Top Self-Driving Car Fears Online

By Jeremy Hsu | May 30, 2017 11:58 pm
A color-coded view from a self-driving car operated by Waymo. Credit: Waymo

A color-coded view from a self-driving car operated by Waymo. Credit: Waymo

Silicon Valley tech giants and Detroit automakers have to convince people to trust self-driving cars before they can sell the futuristic technology to customers. That may prove tricky considering the public’s lingering fears and concerns regarding self-driving cars. A recent AI-assisted analysis of more than one trillion social posts revealed that scared-face emoticons related to self-driving cars rose from 30 percent of all emoticons used on the topic to 50 percent by 2016. Top concerns mentioned in social media included self-driving car fears of being hacked and “robot apocalypse” scenarios of technological change.

It would be silly to interpret “scared face” emoticons and emoji posted on online as being fully representative of public attitudes toward self-driving cars. But it’s still a useful sign of the public relations challenge facing companies hoping to sell the self-driving car future to the broader public–especially given that about 70 percent of all Americans use some form of social media. The recent social media findings by Crimson Hexagon, an analytics company based in Boston, also generally line up with previous studies on public attitudes toward self-driving cars. Any company that wants to sell a positive image of self-driving cars will almost inevitably have to confront online narratives of nightmare hacking scenarios and doomsday visions.

Crimson Hexagon’s report looked at one trillion social posts from sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and online forums, as well as some car-specific sites such as Autotrader and Edmunds. The company performed the analysis using machine learning–a fairly common AI technology nowadays–to sift through patterns in words and emoticons within the social media posts. The machine learning AI trained specifically on using natural language processing and was also able to help identify some of the emotional sentiment behind certain words or phrases.

Concerns about self-driving cars being vulnerable to hacker attacks seemed fairly prominent with 18,000 mentions. These self-driving car fears were often driven by mainstream news reports that discussed hacking vulnerabilities and self-driving car safety. But doomsday fears of technological change that revolved around “apocalypse, doomsday and the destruction of humanity” came in close behind with 17,000 mentions.

The online talk was not all doom and gloom surrounding self-driving cars. About 6,000 social posts focused on the positive side of self-driving cars as a “technological revolution that harnesses big data and machine learning.” Another 7,000 social posts discussed self-driving cars as a possible solution to traffic jams and highway congestion even as they also featured angry venting. And 4,000 social posts talked up the innovation behind self-driving cars and their awe of the entrepreneurs and engineers developing such technologies.

Many past and recent direct surveys have found that people also have self-driving car fears about personally trying out the vehicles. Elegant E-Learning, an online service that provides practice tests for driving licenses, published a report in April based on responses from 158,000 visitors to its websites. The most common answer among U.S. respondents was that they would be “very concerned” about riding in a fully autonomous driverless car, but a somewhat smaller number said they would “not be concerned at all.” On a separate question, a larger percentage of U.S. respondents said that self-driving car benefits would not outweigh the negatives, whereas a smaller percentage said the benefits would outweigh the negatives.

Still, there were some mixed feelings of broad optimism tempered by personal self-driving car fears among U.S. respondents. About 31 percent said they believed the benefits of self-driving cars would outweigh the risks and costs, even though the same respondents said they would personally be concerned about riding in such autonomous vehicles.

There is still room for optimism among the companies developing self-driving cars. Past studies have shown that people can quickly become comfortable with semi-autonomous and more advanced self-driving cars once they get to try the vehicles out for themselves. The idea of gradually exposing more people to the benefits of riding around in self-driving taxis and other vehicles seems to be the guiding philosophy for a number of companies such as ride-hailing giant Uber, MIT startup NuTonomy, and the company Waymo spun out of Google’s former self-driving car project. The latter even launched its “early rider” program in April for certain residents of Phoenix, Arizona to try out Waymo’s fleet of self-driving vehicles.

If more people get firsthand experience with such vehicles, the self-driving car fears may eventually shift away from doomsday scenarios to the more mundane complaints that surround ordinary transportation options such as public transit and ride hailing services. That many not exactly sound like a PR win, but it’s a much better case for self-driving car companies than being seen as harbingers of the robopocalypse.

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  • OWilson

    Self driving cars have as much chance of taking over the streets as the “Segway” did of taking over the sidewalks.

    Somebody is pushing driverless cars, but outside of controlled spaces and tracks like elevators, shuttles, that have limited travel options, they will not in general use in the general traffic population, before flying cars.

    Millions of faulty vehicles have been recalled in the last few years alone for faulty computer sensors.

    From teenage hackers diverting pizza delivery to their local park, to the “Alah Akbar” virus that has one run amok on the thruway, the problems are endless.

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    • fed-up-Redhead

      Your last two paragraphs are priceless and so right! Let’s not forget avoiding drunk drivers, oblivious pedestrians, and that animal or child darting out from between parked cars. The cars may be getting better, but humans have a long way to go.

    • Maia

      Basically agree with you here. But what is “Segway”?

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  • Alan

    Sure, there will be some trepidation, but like all technology, the fear exists before it arrives, but when it does, everyone is blase about it. Eventually, in the future, armed with stats that show most serious accidents are caused by human drivers, the government will be pushing to ban human driven cars.

    • Maia

      No, not everyone is blase or will be.
      But why do you think this “push” is happening at all? Is it coming from consumers? No, it isn’t. So what’s behind it? The real fear above all is the massive loss of jobs. Who are these self-driving cars going to benefit most? I’ll give you a hint: those who will directly profit, as in larger bank accounts.

      • Alan

        They will be blase about self driving cars the same way they are now blase about everyone carrying around a wireless telephone/computer. What you speak of, automation taking over jobs, is a bigger issue. I am writing a book about it now.

        • Maia

          “Everyone” does not include myself, my son, many friends. You are over-generalizing maybe from your own experience.
          Happy to hear about your book, though!

          • Alan

            Yes. “Everyone” certainly doesn’t mean every single person. I’m sure there are people today that remain mystified, perhaps terrified, that people are walking around apparently talking to themselves or maybe demons, holding tiny bewitched boxes that glow in the dark.
            Yes, in the book, the bulk of humanity was almost wiped out by a few greedy people that sought paradise on Earth for themselves, catered to by robots, living like gods.

          • Maia

            No mystified about it. A conscious careful decision not to follow the herd. I use a computer obviously, but no thanks to “smart” phones, and beyond.
            Books sounds very interesting! That is what we are herding toward, don’t you think? All the electric servents to meet our every whim, at the cost of beautiful earth, clean water, wildlife…

          • Alan

            Like I said, in my book, the very few, very rich and powerful intend to remake the world into a Garden of Eden, where they can live like gods, served by their robots. No other humans are needed. This is the ultimate destiny of humanity, the life of the deserving elite, once the chaff of mankind is burned away.

          • Reason

            Everything you have said is exactly what will happen. When we have massive environmental failure millions will starve, maybe billions. Only the elite will have the resources to survive the chaos that ensues.

          • Alan

            When the billions of unemployed poor living in a welfare state take to the streets in protest and unrest, the elite will increasingly focus on security, for themselves and the infrastructure that the poor rely on. Security will be harsh, inciting more violence. The time will be ripe for the final solution.

  • JON DOUGH

    I hope that self driving cars are available to everyday drivers soon.

    My biggest concern is reliability. Manufacturers are still not able to build a radio that operates more than a few years. This makes me very leery of a Computer, Radar and Lidar combination operating my car.

    • Maia

      As well you should be. I think most of us have many experiences of supposedly high quality machines failing early and in odd ways. They are computer controlled: has anyone out there never had a series of glitches? Has no one ever had their accounts hacked? Computers hooked up to a network are hackable like everything else.

  • Maia

    No one has yet seriously discussed the loss of jobs created by robotic machines. Actually a big motivator to companies who want to eliminate labor costs, benefits, sick days, leave, et al.

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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