Even the Bay Area Is Sick of Autonomous Cars

By: Bridget Clerkin June 15, 2018
Public opinion in the Bay Area is turning against self-driving cars.

Mankind may follow a linear timeline to mark the years, but the true mechanics of the world are cyclical. And it seems not even artificial intelligence can escape the natural order.

After enjoying a few years of escalating and inescapable buzz, the concept of autonomous cars seems to be hitting an inevitable period of backlash. Even those living in the birthplace of the vehicles are caught up in the emotional swing.

A new survey conducted by the Bay Area Council, a public policy advocacy group, found that fewer people in the nine-county Bay Area today are in favor of the vehicles than a year ago. Forty-six percent of respondents said they would be willing to get into an autonomous car, compared to 52% a year ago. And 39% said they wouldn’t even consider getting into a car without a real, live human driver behind the wheel.

The findings reflect those discovered by a number of other surveys from across the nation, some of which trace the enthusiasm gap back as far as two years ago.

To be sure, the first half of the year has been especially trying for the autonomous industry, with the technology responsible for a spate of high-profile fatal accidents, including the first pedestrian death at the hands of a self-driving car.

Several surveys conducted in the wake of the incidents found Americans feeling less inclined to try out—or trust—the technology. The newest findings may also be linked to that particularly bad news cycle.

Still, by some measures, the public about-face was only a matter of time.

According to the theory of the Hype Cycle, autonomous cars may be entering the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

First described—and patented—by marketing research company Gartner, the cycle outlines the general shape of public reaction to the release of new technology.

The ominously-named trough represents the third phase of the five-part cycle. It occurs after a new breakthrough is initially announced (called the “Technology Trigger”), and highly romanticized through a honeymoon period of early successes and good PR (the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”).

After the peak, of course, comes the trough, where failures increase while interest wanes, as companies struggle to live up to the hype steeped upon them, fairly or not.

Fans of autonomous cars have reason to cheer, though.

After the trough comes the “Slope of Enlightenment,” when early bugs are fixed, new avenues of enterprise are opened, and the industry begins finding its footing. The climb is not as steep as the ascent to the peak, but it’s sustainable, ultimately leading to the “Plateau of Productivity,” where the technology more or less becomes integrated into the culture.

Many in the self-driving industry believe it will be about another generation until the autos fully take hold.

In the meantime, at least they’ll be able to guess the general shape of society’s learning curve.

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