For self-driving cars, why do we trust tech companies more than auto makers?

By James Robinson , written on July 3, 2014

From The News Desk

This week, writing about Google’s relationship with automakers, I came across a strange factoid: despite having no experience manufacturing cars, in a KPMG survey more people expressed trust that a tech company could make a good self-driving car than any mass-market or premium car manufacturer.

In some ways, this stated preference is part of a wider national trend. Whether just or not, the tech sector has escaped much of the scorn directed toward major corporations in America and the ensuing pushback at their growing power in society. In a 2013 Gallup survey, 61 percent of Americans were dissatisfied with major corporations. But in another Gallup survey that preceded that by a few months, people had overwhelmingly positive views of the computer (73 percent favorable) and Internet industries (55 percent favorable).

It’s still not an inherently rational thought. Google makes a search engine, maps and an email service that we use habitually. It has an inordinate amount of vast data centers and puts its Android platform on smartphones. We love this technology, but it is nonessential. If its servers crash, we can find information in other ways. We can read a book or ask actual people for directions. As deeply integrated with our everyday lives as Google is, if any of its mainstreamed technology breaks the stakes for the company are low. The biggest risk to us is inconvenience.

This is a common dynamic. Apple’s hardware is more complicated -- laptops and such -- but no one dies from having to visit the Genius bar. If Amazon falls you can go to a physical store. If Facebook’s servers fell victim to foul play you’d just talk to people; if Twitter goes you could just listen to crazy people yell on the street. These guys can put us out a few hundred dollars, a car maker can sting you for tens of thousands.

We love technology. It’s changed the world. But these things can’t hurt us.

As tech companies move into spaces with real, physical risk to its users, it starts to get messy. Look at Uber: convicted felons have shown up in its cars, an off-duty Uber driver killed a six-year old girl, there’s been sexual assault allegations and a mass of insurance wrangling.

Cars kill 34,000 people in America each year. Search engines don’t kill any. As we all know, General Motors just issued a recall of 7 million more vehicles dating as far back as 1997 because of faulty ignitions, from which the death toll is a matter of debate. 13? 100?

The most heat Google gets right now is for privacy, but even this piece with self-driving cars is scary. Google’s cars, reportedly, guzzle between 30 and 130 megabytes of data a second, processing visuals and sensors. If you take a trip, you might know that you left about 2 p.m., took the Bay Bridge and got off at the 9th Street exit before heading down into the Mission. But Google will now know what time you pulled out exactly, a moment by moment run through of the speed you traveled, what you saw, which cars you saw, what the weather was, and so on.

This is incredibly detailed information to hand over to a company that has never shown any regard for appropriately protecting information from manipulation. Google has been accused of manipulating its search rankings, massive international copyright violations through Google Books, and illegally hoovering up personal Wifi data with its Streetview camera cars. The company was sanctioned by the FTC when Google Buzz users found no way to either leave the network or control their privacy settings. That's to say nothing of Google's NSA and military ties.

Maybe above all else, this faith in tech to negotiate the murky, dirty, industrial world of car manufacturing is a complement. The net effect of cars on the environment has been disastrous. The impact of completely redesigning how cars are owned and bringing electric cars to a mass market is huge.

In the eyes of many Americans, Silicon Valley is perceived as a flame holder for all American innovation now, especially with something like self-driving cars, which involves a considerable amount of software know-how.

“It’s because of Elon Musk,” was the take of Pando's Sarah Lacy when I ran this strange quirk of trust past her. As she hypothesized, Tesla has shown us how far the needle can be moved when you bring a tech mindset to old world hardware.

But even Tesla had its battery fires. As Google continues with its cars, and maybe others feel the need to one day join it, the stakes get much, much higher. Bad software rollouts or privacy changes sting for a day or two, injured customers and wrecked vehicles last forever.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]