Imagining tipping points for when Americans will not be hesitant about getting into a self-driving vehicle

A recent survey from AAA suggests Americans are not ready for self-driving vehicles:

The survey shows only 1 in 10 drivers say they would trust riding in a self-driving car, and 28% say they don’t know how they feel about the technology.

According to AAA, trust in automated vehicles can improve with more tangible information on key issues, as well as quality education and experience.

For instance, six in 10 Americans say they would like to have a clear understanding of who is legally responsible in a crash with a self-driving vehicle.

Seven in 10 Americans said they would feel safer riding in a self-driving vehicle if they had the ability to take over control is something goes wrong.

There are a few different issues to address here. Addressing just one, such as who is legally responsible, might not be enough to get people into a vehicle.

I wonder what the tipping point will be on this. Several scenarios could present themselves:

1. A government ruling or edict that makes self-driving cars more attractive. Imagine a guideline that 20% of vehicles must be self-driving in five years.

2. A company that does not make these vehicles invests heavily in them. Think a ride sharing or rental car company goes all in with a fleet of vehicles.

3. Trucking companies switch over to self-driving trucks to cut costs. Would Americans be okay with a self-driving cars if trucks are already doing this (and the alternative might be higher prices for delivered goods)?

4. There is a cool self-driving vehicle that just catches everyone’s attention. Tesla seems to capture attention but does not have a fully-functional self-driving feature yet.

5. There is a significant safety issue that arises with regular vehicles or driving is soon seen as a significant health issue. Perhaps at some point Americans will get fed up with the 30,000+ deaths a year in car accidents. (Could be connected to #1.)

Given the concerns people have, it is hard to know when self-driving vehicles will become a significant presence on the road. 2030? A number of things will need to come together for fears to subside.

Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

Suburban voters, voting and acting out of fear

The much-discussed suburban voter of this election cycle may have multiple motivations for voting. One factor that appears present now is fear. Are our lives at risk? Will the country will be ruined if the other party is in control?

A little thought experiment: does this easily play into suburban anxieties and fears? Here are some fears scholars have suggested suburbanites face on a regular basis:

1. Fear of the “other,” usually referring to people of non-white races and ethnicities. This manifests itself in multiple ways including exclusionary zoning and gated communities.

2. Fear of losing a middle-class or upper middle-class status. This leads to trying to gather resources for just their family or community.

3. Fear that either their children are not going to succeed or that they are at risk. After all, the suburbs are supposed to be a safe place for which to launch them to excellence.

4. This dates back more to the early decades of postwar suburbia but a fear of losing their individualism and being pushed into conformity to suburban norms.

There are counterarguments to each of these as well as a general claim that suburbanites move to the suburbs because they wanted to, not because they were all fearful.

But, if there are indeed numerous fears in suburbia, does marketing politicians and policies on the basis of fear an even more effective tactic for suburban voters?

Americans fearful of driverless cars

Recent surveys suggest a majority of Americans don’t want to hand over their steering wheels yet:

Autonomous autos are advancing so rapidly that companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo are beginning to offer robot rides to everyday consumers. But it turns out the traveling public may not be ready. A recent survey by the American Automobile Association found that more than three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car. And it’s not just Baby Boomers growing increasingly fearful of giving up the wheel to a computer, a J.D. Power study shows — it’s almost every generation.

Consumers will only become comfortable with driverless cars after they ride in them, Mary Barra, the chief executive officer of General Motors Co., said this week. The largest U.S. automaker is testing 180 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts and ultimately plans to put them in ride-hailing fleets, though it won’t say when…

Dangerous as it may be to operate cars themselves, many drivers are anxious about autonomous technology because they associate it with the fragility of electronic devices. Laptops crash and calls drop with nagging regularity. The consequence of a computerized car crash is much greater.

Americans tend to like technology: we like progress and new and exciting options. Is the fear related to safety or also connected to how Americans view driving (despite all the hours spent commuting and stuck in traffic, Americans like the freedom it offers)?

I’m guessing this fear will drop within a few years as stories of mishaps become normal (and even the occasional mishap would be safer in the long run compared to the tens of thousands of Americans killed each year in vehicles) and the technology improves. Could we also imagine a scenario where governments impose self-driving vehicles because of their improved safety?

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

Sociologist who studies fear at and collects stats for a haunted house

Here is one way to put sociological training into practice: working for a haunted house.

Ms. Kerr’s equivalent of a coffee break was the ScareHouse in Etna, which bills itself as “Pittsburgh’s ultimate haunted house” and has earned accolades from national publications, trade magazines, horror movie directors and other outlets to buttress the claim…

A part-time professor at Pitt and Robert Morris University, Ms. Kerr’s appreciation for the macabre also led to a job at ScareHouse, where she’s worked since 2008 as an administrator, statistician and resident sociologist…

Though the ScareHouse, which opened in 1999, had long taken customer surveys, Ms. Kerr added a new dimension, he says, polling not just on what aspects of the haunted house worked but what customers’ fear most deeply…

Ms. Kerr’s book, based on her haunted house experiences, deals with “the real benefits of experiencing thrilling or scary materials.” Those can range from the endorphin and adrenaline rush and confidence boost of surviving a dicey encounter to the stronger bonds formed in social groups that experience a scary situation together. Of course, there’s an important caveat.

“To really enjoy thrilling situations, you have to know that you’re safe,” she added.

“Thanks for experiencing our haunted house – now please take our exit survey.” Yet, it sounds like an interesting place to collect data. It would be interesting to hear how generalizable the findings about fear at a haunted house might be to other situations.

I often tell my statistics and research methods students that all sorts of organizations, from NGOs to corporations to religious groups to governments, are looking to collect and analyze data. Here is another example I can use that might prove more interesting than some other options…