New transport technology is hazardous. History is full of examples of why it’s risky to push a new idea into the public sphere too soon. Cast your imagination back to the sepia-toned world of 1860s Great Britain, for example.
Step out onto a bustling town centre street, hook your thumbs into your braces and take in the sights and sounds of progress. A horse pulls a taxi carriage containing a busy man with a glorious imperial moustache. One of the local smiths across the street rhythmically hammers glowing axe blades ordered by an expanding farm. You step out into the road to start your day, oblivious to the insistent chuffa-chuffa-chuffa noise closing in on your position…
Clang. Or worse; crunch. The steam-powered locomotive engine in the hands of a gleeful early-adopting lord has just knocked you hard to the floor. Maybe it’s crushed your leg, your arm or something even more important. There’s no such thing as insurance or ‘no-win, no-fee’ solicitors available to the masses, and the local constabulary are probably friendly with the steam-toting Lord Featherington Pimpleworthy-Smythe. In short, you’re stuffed. Justifiably you feel like the victim here, but not everyone will see it from the same perspective.
Such was life back then. Presumably after collision-related teething problems as wheeled steam engines began mixing it with pedestrians in town centres, an urban speed limit of 10mph was introduced across the UK in 1861. Then, in 1865, that was reduced to just 2mph following the ‘Red Flag Act’ (4mph out of town), and included orders that mechanically-driven vehicles must be preceded by a man waving a red flag.
It was a knee-jerk reaction to a problem no one knew how to solve at that time. How do you stop unsuspecting members of the public falling foul of one of these new-fangled automowhatsits? It’s not their fault that they’re not experts in the new technology, and without either mass education or mass adoption, how are they going to learn? The authorities are in no position to teach.
Rapid advances in technology are a reality and have been for the last 400 years or so. With change comes risk, and we’re an increasingly risk-averse culture. After the baby boomer generation enjoyed seemingly endless boom-and-bust growth, always with more boom than bust, we’re now in a position where relative prosperity is much harder to come by. We’re clinging to what we have and what we know, shunning in significant ways anything that doesn’t promise something that’s immediately better in ways we’re comfortable with.
Can Tesla promise that Smart Summon is immediately better? No, no it can’t. It can’t even promise that they system won’t permit crashes into cars carelessly reversing out of parking spaces, or try to cross roads where traffic is flowing right across the car’s nose. It’s not ready, but that’s not really the whole problem. We’re not ready.
Today’s public steps out in front of electric cars because they’re not expecting them. Today’s public, or at least those with more YouTube followers than brain cells, also attempts to force a potentially life-threatening technology in its beta-testing stage to cross roads and navigate car parks. We can see the technology’s flaws, but humans on both sides of the fence are very obviously not fit for purpose either. If this keeps up we’ll end up with just another knee-jerk reaction.