It looks like soon Britons won’t have to worry about driving home from the pub after having had a few too many. At least that’s what the Daily Mail coverage of the UK Government’s decision to allow driverless cars to be tested on public roads suggests.
In case you missed this story, the self-driving vehicles that will be seen in the UK as of next summer are like traditional cars but can also sense their environment and navigate without human input. The driverless cars that will be tested on UK roads, however, will be required to have a fully qualified test driver who could take over, should anything go awry.
Still, the Daily Mail jumped on the news, writing that occupants of driverless cars, “…won’t even need a driving license. And even those now considered ‘unfit’ to drive will be eligible.” In the same article, the writer eventually concedes that current laws actually prohibit this, but not without mentioning that this could change in the future.
And it wasn’t just the Daily Mail that presented driverless technology in the most horrifying way possible. The Telegraph responded with a headline asking, “Driverless cars sound great, but can we stop the sat nav driving us off bridges first?”
This headline refers to concern about whether vehicles controlled by software can be hacked, causing cars to crash into each other or “drive off a bridge”. Then again, human driven cars already crash and there’s no software update that will ever prevent this.
The press coverage of this new technology demonstrates how much the media enjoys a good technology scare story. Findings by the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, support this theory: research shows that the press has a tendency to express wariness about the effects of technology on our lives. In other words, it’s common for the press to take the “robots are taking over” angle when it comes to reporting on technology. This is certainly true for the coverage of driverless cars in the UK, and exactly why it’s especially important for technology to be presented in a way that showcases the benefits, of which there are usually many.
The truth about driverless cars is that they won’t just make life easier by perhaps allowing people to have a few drinks before getting behind the wheel, or reading, surfing the internet and even taking a nap all while driving – these cars will actually save lives.
In reality cars with a human driver behind the wheel are the real danger: a staggering 90% of car crashes are caused by human error. That is one of the main reasons the UK insurance industry supports driverless technology.
Consider airplanes for a moment: It’s a well-known fact that you are much more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than you are in a plane crash. That’s mainly due to the fact that airplane technology has advanced considerably in recent decades that planes basically fly themselves on auto-pilot, except at take-off and landing. In recent years almost all plane crashes have been due to human error, not the auto-pilot.
Furthermore it’s not just airplanes that have been improved by technology: Driverless underground systems already exist all over the world. And while this technology was met with resistance, it has proven to be safe and cost efficient.
In addition to significantly improving safety, driverless cars would be a boon to the British economy if this technology was developed here and exported. The industry is expected to be worth £900 billion by 2025, which is why the UK government wants to embrace the technology. The value of British car exports has nearly doubled in the past decade, but it could become vital to embrace driverless technology in order to maintain this momentum.
In short, driverless cars are poised to significantly improve our lives. However the negative media coverage seems to be having a significant impact on public opinion: 48% of the population would be unwilling to “drive” an autonomous vehicle, according to a survey by the price comparison website uSwitch.com. Of those surveyed, 16% were “horrified” merely by the idea of a driverless car.
There is an important lesson in the media coverage of driverless cars for tech companies: technology is an easy target for scaremongering. This is true not just for driverless cars, but all technology that will result in significant change, regardless of whether that change is positive or negative. When the media gets a hold of a good scare story, the facts can often become muddled. So the best approach for tech companies is to get ahead of the story and steer it in the right direction because even when it comes to reporting the facts, it’s almost always human error that results in disaster.