Political Risk Brief
Summer 2018

Autonomous Vehicles Confront a Political Viability Crisis

Introduction

Rising opposition among ideological elites threatens to create a political viability crisis for autonomous vehicles (AVs).  Analysis of more than two hundred sources suggests that negative sentiment among key opinion leaders has deepened, following a trajectory identified in Baron’s 2016 report.  The direction of the intellectual commentary on AVs signals a public policy environment significantly more hostile than commonly expected by AV developers and investors.1  Realizing the enormous potential benefits of AV technology will depend on a concerted, sustained effort to reverse deepening ideological skepticism on the Left and Right.2 

Baron catalogued, reviewed, and categorized commentary from approximately 225 political publications, issue groups, and other organizations directly involved in ideological debates concerning AVs.  This process revealed the following currently intensifying themes: 

  • Conservatives committed to limited government and progressives seeking to protect consumers both perceive AVs as a dangerous force for centralized control; 
  • With the Left and Right embracing policies focused on increasing wages, diverse political elites fear the potential of AVs to displace massive numbers of low- and middle-income jobs; and
  • Cultural beliefs deeply held by the Left and the Right – urbanization and rugged individualism, respectively – clash with the core premise of AV technology. 

Centralization

Deep-seated anxieties about centralization inform political opinion regarding AVs.  Left-of-center elites commonly mistrust corporations involved in AVs as forces of societal dominance and consider government to be an essential check on rampant profiteering.  For example, after an AV operated by Uber fatally struck a pedestrian in Arizona, left-of-center Mother Jones accused Uber of being “exactly the kind of company that would cut corners … [Uber has] a corporate culture that’s built to expand their taxi service no matter who gets hurt” and “pushing the limits of expansion as far as they could … before authorities could stop them.”3  Slate urged cities to “band together” in the manner of ancient Greek city-states that provided “security against pirates and hostile neighbors,” claiming that “today, cities … have to join together to maintain autonomy over their streets and communities in the face of rapidly emerging [AV] technologies being deployed by powerful corporations.”4 

Even as they risk alienating the Left, AV companies also are struggling to obtain support on the Right, in part due to growing skepticism of Silicon Valley.  The Daily Caller, which often takes a positive view of market competition and private-sector leaders, lamented that companies such as Google, Apple, and General Motors are just “following the money” in their efforts on AVs.5  Most notably, right-of-center concerns about centralization focus on AVs’ potential to increase government control.  The American Thinker warns that mass adoption of AVs could enable a state-mandated “allotment of fuel” and “limit [on] the number of cars that can be directed into the city on a daily basis,” restricting individual freedom.6  Other conservative commentators opined that government control, facilitated by the rise of AVs, will go even further.  American Greatness remarked that consumers will be “forced into ‘driverless cars,’” and National Review reported on government enthusiasts who want to “ban human drivers.”7  For key conservative elites, AVs would equip the Left with a powerful tool for “nudging” average citizens toward “better” decisions.8

Labor Displacement

Political decision makers and commentators from across the ideological spectrum have expressed apprehension about potential job displacement.  Within a month of her confirmation, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao indicated that she was “very concerned” about how AVs would affect employment in the transportation sector.9  Key Trump-voting states have higher-than-average shares of driving-related professions, and the Trump Administration has prioritized protecting American workers.  As reported by Breitbart News, Secretary Elaine Chao noted in her comments at a June 2018 Faith and Freedom Coalition event, “As a former Secretary of Labor, I’m also concerned about the impact [AV] technologies will have on jobs.”10 

Left-of-center voices express similar concerns.  Clean Technica, for example, writes, “The only solution to this [job loss caused by AVs] is to introduce a national basic income at the earliest possible time.”11  One union leader in Ohio noted, “[AV deployment] would be devastating in the African-American community as predominantly the bus drivers are African-American.”  More broadly, according to prominent voices on the Left, driverless technology could serve as an “extension of … economic oppression” by hindering access to jobs and disproportionately decreasing the economic well-being of those in urban centers with largely minority populations.12 

The AV Debate and Cultural Conflict

The growing resistance among ideological elites to AVs reflects inherent conflict between the technology and deeply held cultural values.  Although important to building support, purely economic arguments in favor of AVs likely will prove inadequate to persuading key influencers, especially ardent environmentalists on the Left and “New Nationalists” on the Right.13 

Environmental leaders already have defined AVs as exacerbating human impacts on nature through increased individual travel and real estate development.14  If AVs achieve even a fraction of projected benefits in productivity and transportation affordability, then the technology would reinforce preferences for private – as opposed to shared – trips and strand investment in mass transit.  Although these anxieties have been emergent on the Left for several years, higher-profile elites now publicly echo these concerns.  For example, Susan Crawford, who served as Special Assistant to President Obama for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, has warned that lost revenue from traditional car-centered fees and fines will drive cities to “financial ruin.”15  In response to a study predicting that AVs could result in “more traffic congestion, more vehicle miles traveled, and more emissions,” commentators on the environmental Left described this potential outcome as “scary” and “climate-damaging” and called for preemptive policy action.16  Furthermore, the explosion in electric bicycle options has invigorated calls for a future without automobiles of any kind.  To this point, Tree Hugger, an environmentalist blog with more than 350,000 Twitter followers, earlier this year argued, “Instead of being so obsessed with making the world safe for autonomous cars, we should be concentrating on making them safe for bikes and e-bikes.”  Tree Hugger added, “We have to do everything we can to get as many people out of cars and on to bikes.”17 

For the Right, the very reason to reject the Left’s environmentalism animates conservative opposition to AVs: the threat posed to individual freedom.  In his column “A Nation of Passengers,” Michael Walsh of the pro-Trump publication American Greatness characterizes AVs as a “technology that absolutely no red-blooded American male could possibly want.”  Walsh’s reason: “It’s never any fun being a passenger.”  In removing humans from control of the vehicle, AVs to Walsh are “emasculating, imprisoning, anti-American, and inhuman.”18  Conservatives appear especially skeptical that a machine can assume core decision-making functions: “There’s just something comforting about humans that [AVs] can’t match,” asserted author and Washington Times journalist, Cheryl Chumley.19  Conservative columnist David P. Goldman argues that the fatal Uber AV accident serves as a much-needed reminder of the limits of technology: “The cultural damage done by the Utopian vision of brain-as-a-machine is enormous, and the skepticism with which the public now must view Artificial Intelligence is a healthy corrective.”20

Conclusion

Opposition to AVs defies conventional partisan and ideological boundaries.  Potent underlying trends – particularly populist distrust of large technology companies and growing sympathy for labor – present serious political risks to AVs.  A strong case can be made that the future success of AVs depends as much on overcoming rising opposition among ideological elites as on technology innovation. 

Baron Public Affairs, LLC thanks Spring 2018 intern Zev Roberts for his important contributions to this analysis. 

1 Morgan Stanley, “Autonomous Cars: The Future is Now,” Morgan Stanley, January 23, 2015, http://www.morganstanley.com/articles/autonomous-cars-the-future-is-now/. 

2 Morgan Stanley, “Autonomous Cars: The Future is Now.” 

Adrienne Lafrance, “Self-Driving Cars Could Save 300,000 Lives Per Decade in America,” The Atlantic, September 29, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/09/self-driving-cars-could-save-300000-lives-per-decade-in-america/407956/. 

3 Kevin Drum, “Uber Really Shouldn’t Be in the Driverless Car Business,” Mother Jones, March 23, 2018, https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2018/03/uber-really-shouldnt-be-in-the-driverless-car-business/. 

4 Thaddeus Miller, “Cities Need to Band Together on Self-Driving Cars,” Slate, April 11, 2018, https://slate.com/technology/2018/04/cities-need-a-modern-day-hanseatic-league-to-get-bargaining-power-on-self-driving-cars.html/. 

5 Mike Nalepka, “Hate to say I told you so: self-driving cars are mindless murderers,” The Daily Caller, March 22, 2018, http://dailycaller.com/2018/03/22/hate-to-say-i-told-you-so-self-driving-cars-are-mindless-murderers/. 

6 David Lanza, “Driverless Cars and GPS: The Fearful Master,” American Thinker, January 29, 2018, https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2018/01/driverless_cars_and_gps_the_fearful_master. html/. 

7 Michael Walsh, “A Nation of Passengers,” American Greatness, March 22, 2018, https://amgreatness.com/2018/03/22/a-nation-of-passengers/. 

James Lileks, “The Next Big Thing the Left Wants to Ban: Human Drivers,” National Review, October 7, 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/10/driverless-cars-left-ban-human-drivers/. 

8 Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print. 

9 Reuters, “Trump Administration Reevaluating Self-Driving Car Guidance,” Fortune, February 16, 2017, http://fortune.com/2017/02/26/trump-self-driving-car-guidance/. 

10 Mark Fahey, “Driverless Cars will kill the most jobs in select US states,” CNBC, September 2, 2016, https://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/02/driverless-cars-will-kill-the-most-jobs-in-select-us-states. html/. 

John Hayward, “Elaine Chao: Keeping faith with America by ‘Working hard to increase opportunities for all,’” Breitbart, June 8, 2018, https://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2018/06/08/elaine-chao-keeping-faith-with-america-by-working-hard-to-increase-opportunities-for-all/. 

11 Andy Miles, “EVs, Automation, & Artificial-Intelligence: Opportunities & Threats,” Clean Technica, April 16, 2018, https://cleantechnica.com/2018/04/16/evs-automation-artificial-intelligence-opportunities-threats/. 

12 Alexis C. Madrigal, “How Automation Could Worsen Racial Inequality,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/01/black-workers-and-the-driverless-bus/550535/. 

Susan Crawford, “Autonomous Vehicles Might Drive Cities to Financial Ruin,” Wired, June 20, 2018, https://www-wired-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.wired.com/story/autonomous-vehicles-might-drive-cities-to-financial-ruin/amp/. 

13 “Trump’s First Year: Corporate America and New Nationalism,” Baron Public Affairs, LLC, February 2018, https://www.baronpa.com/prb/trumps-first-year-corporate-america-new-nationalism/. 

14 Lloyd Alter, “Eric Reguly on how self-driving cars will kill cities, not save them,” Tree Hugger, May 26, 2017, https://www.treehugger.com/cars/eric-reguly-how-self-driving-cars-will-kill-cities-not-save-them.html/. 

15 Susan Crawford, “Autonomous Vehicles Might Drive Cities to Financial Ruin.” 

16 Lloyd Alter, “There are three revolutions in urban transportation coming down the road,” Tree Hugger, May 10, 2017, https://www.treehugger.com/urban-design/there-are-three-revolutions-urban-transportation-coming-down-road.html/. 

Jacques Leslie, “Will Self-Driving Cars Usher in a Transportation Utopia or Dystopia?” Yale Environment 360, January 8, 2018, https://e360.yale.edu/features/will-self-driving-cars-usher-in-a-transportation-utopia-or-dystopia?/. 

David Roberts, “Power companies have resisted climate policy. Now it might be their only hope,” Vox, March 13, 2018, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/3/13/17108590/utilities-electrify-everything/. 

17 Lloyd Alter, “Why bikes and e-bikes will eat cars,” Tree Hugger, January 12, 2018, https://www.treehugger.com/bikes/why-bikes-and-e-bikes-will-eat-cars.html/. 

Lloyd Alter, “Hyperloopism is infecting everything; It’s time for sustainable alternatives,” Tree Hugger, March 15, 2018, https://www.treehugger.com/urban-design/hyperloopism-infecting-everything-its-time-sustainable-alternatives.html/. 

18 Michael Walsh, “A Nation of Passengers.” 

19 Cheryl K. Chumley, “Self-driving cars may be the science world’s dream, but the premise is flawed,” The Washington Times, February 27, 2018, https://washingtontimes.com/news/2018/feb/27/ self-driving-cars-may-be-the-science-worlds-dream-/. 

20 David P. Goldman, “Uber’s Death Car and the Cracks in Liberal Culture,” PJ Media, March 22, 2018, https://pjmedia.com/spengler/ubers-death-car-cracks-liberal-culture/.