Man vs Machine: Self-Driving Cars Attacked by Californians

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Posted on 15th March 2018 – Car Technology

Autonomous cars have been in the spotlight for a while. They dangle in front of us the dream of an era where human error and rule breaking have been eliminated from driving, although there is still some way to go, technically, until they are able to manage the complexity of roads and decision making and the legal framework is amended to reflect the many aspects of liability.

However, although they are meant to remove the unpredictability of human reactions from driving, one thing nobody foresaw was that they could find themselves attacked by drivers irate at them.

Driving does this strange thing to most people: it can turn even the mildest-mannered person into an irrational, foul-mouthed creature. And sometimes, it doesn't stop at swearing in the privacy of our car, it can take a turn for the worst and become road rage.

One would think that it would be pointless to direct this anger towards an inanimate object – but who hasn't sworn at a computer that would take too long to do what you want it to? Yet, there have been report of drivers attacking driverless cars in San Francisco.

The city has been the perfect playground for self-driving car manufacturers. Its hilly topography, heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and changing weather conditions make it the ideal environment to put cars in a range of scenarios so that they can learn faster. It is also close to Silicon Valley and the area has been attracting many technical compani­es hoping to get a piece of a pie that everybody thinks will be huge business in the future.

Forecasts place the potential revenues for self-driving vehicles at up to NZ$120 billion by 2030 for sales of autonomous and semi-autonomous cars. And if you think that's a lot, the 'passenger economy' (robot taxis and robot deliveries related to self-driving vehicles) is estimated at NZ$1,100 billionby 2025 and close to $10 trillion by 2050. With numbers like this, it is no surprise that extensive testing might be taking place.

In San Francisco, autonomous cars have become so commonplace that people don't even notice them anymore.

Waymo, formerly known as the Google self-driving car project, started testing its vehicles in San Francisco in 2009. Although it has now extended its programme to 24 other American cities, it has returned to it in 2018 to test further the cars' ability to cope with heavy traffic, road works and any other unpredictable road conditions. Cruise, a company bought by General Motors, also unleashed its self-driving fleet on San Francisco streets early 2017.

It hasn't been smooth sailing however. Between September and November 2017, Cruise reported 14 collisions involving one of its vehicles in San Francisco. They were minor incidents, often caused by human error. Perhaps more disturbing though, is that cases have been reported of drivers crashing into autonomous cars on purpose, according to accident reports collected by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, or pedestrian attacking cars for no apparent reason.

For example, a pedestrian ran across a street to confront a Cruise self-driving vehicle which was stationary, waiting for people to cross the road. He hit the rear bumper and hatch with his 'entire' body, damaging a tail light, although he himself wasn't injured. In another case, a taxi driver went to the length of getting out of his taxi for the sole purpose of hitting the window on the front passenger side, leaving a scratch.

One has to wonder why such gratuitous attacks took place. California is renowned for its laid-back attitude and such behaviour is all the more difficult to understand that, in both cases, the AVs were 'minding their own business' and weren't involved in a collision with the individuals who attacked them.

It is also interesting to note that it isn't the first time that humans have assaulted robots in San Francisco. Last year, an animal shelter had to withdraw a security robot from the streets after opposition from the residents who claimed that it was harassing them. It was knocked over and barbecue sauce was poured over it sensors. A drunk man was arrested for hitting another security robot in Silicon Valley and delivery robots have been the objects of vandalism.

Road rage isn't a new phenomenon but perhaps a deeper dynamics is behind those attacks. One explanation is that automation in general, and the self-driving car industry in particular, is perceived as a threat as far as jobs are concerned and has created an underlying resentment from people. This would certainly explain the reaction from the taxi driver. Although the San Francisco supervisor unsuccessfully tried to tax robots that took human jobs, and a bill was passed limiting the number of autonomous delivery robots allowed in the city, one can understand the worry the machines are causing.

Another explanation could be the fact that autonomous vehicles have been involved in accidents that harmed people. Vandalising one of them can be seen as avenging our own species, in an immemorial 'us' vs 'them' logic.

Whichever reason these people have had to attack driverless cars, the latter look like they are here to stay in any case. Until the 2nd of April 2018, autonomous cars being tested had to have a 'safety' driver behind the wheel, but new legislation removed this constraint, indicating that there is a political will to support a move towards more AVs on the roads. Paradoxically, this will also leave the cars more exposed to random vandalism.

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