Imagine it’s the 1890s and poll takers want to know: “Do you favor electrical lighting in homes?”
The pollsters call people... oh wait, no phones.
In any case, they stop people on the streets and ask. Already, electricity is notorious for causing house fires. It was a plaything of the rich and famous, a frippery and a luxury. What would happen to the candle industry, the whale-oil industry, to the candleholder industry? Is this stuff even necessary? People with electricity would probably end up staying up too late and missing their morning chores.
So how do people answer? I imagine that perhaps a third of the people would think that electrical lighting in homes would produce beneficial results. Most people would say that it will cause more trouble than it is worth. The results of the poll would probably reflect age demographics, with young people ready to take the risk while older Americans would find the whole thing troubling, ridiculous, and wasteful.
As it turns out, this is precisely what the polls show about self-driving cars, which are making great progress around the country. The newest polls show that large numbers of people think that self-driving cars will not reduce accidents and will take away jobs from many people who drive for a living.
So will self-driving cars improve the overall driving experience? Just 31 percent say it will, compared to 48 percent who say no. And most Americans don’t expect to ride in a self-driving car any time soon. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they were not too likely or not at all likely to ride in a self-driving car in the next 10 years. An even larger 61 percent say they are unlikely to use an Uber-style self-driving car service if it becomes available in their area.
Consider how remarkable this is. Every day, Americans put their lives in the hands of strangers driving one-ton machines at high speeds. Our lives are wholly dependent on the volition of others. More than 32,000 people each year die, and hundreds of thousands of accidents happen resulting in terrible injury and financial loss. I see one every few days outside my office window. And yet people still do it.
Self-driving cars offer a solution to this mess. It’s not a perfect solution of course, but it is getting better.
What if we treated technology the way we treat governance? There would be polls, and elected leaders, and legislatures, and everything would be either mandated or forbidden. Mostly forbidden.
What would we have missed? Self-driving cars, for sure. But probably also the Internet, phones, flight, electricity, the factory system, printing, and probably even the wheel. Technology has to emerge within the market, adopted first by an elite and then rolled out later, and be allowed to improve based on market experience. It's a form of democracy but not one that works by majority vote, much less polling. It's also more reliable because people's votes (purchases) require skin in the game.
There is a reason we have this system: it works for us, even when new technologies are almost always and initially unpopular.