From deficit to dialogue – A comment on PAVE

As the Tech world gathered in Las Vegas for CES last week, a coalition of self-driving players launched a new initiative – Partners for Automate Vehicle Education. According to its site, PAVE comprises ‘disability advocacy groups and safety groups… traditional automakers from the United States and around the world, auto component makers, startup technology companies, established tech firms [and] insurance firms.’ They want to tell people ’the facts’ about self-driving cars, get consumers using them and tell policymakers about the possibilities of this new tech.

PAVE say that their goal is “purely educational: the coalition does not advocate for a particular technology.” It is clear, however, that the motive is not completely pure. They are clearly advocating for self-driving car technologies, and should admit as much. A pretence at neutrality won’t survive a test of public credulity for long. PR is PR.

The more important question, I think, is whether this campaign has identified the right problem. In the 1980s, scientists and innovators recognised a growing public scepticism. Their prescription was one of education. In the UK, we saw institutionalised programmes to improve the ‘public understanding of science’. These programmes were based on what Brian Wynne later called the ‘Deficit Model’. The problem was seen as one of public ignorance, which could be corrected with more public information. It was the wrong diagnosis. As controversies grew around new technologies like genetically modified crops, it quickly became clear that the problem was not a deficient public, but institutions of science and innovation that didn’t really understand what the public thought. Members of the public had a range of legitimate questions about the technology and these questions weren’t being listened too. The things that scientists and the biotech industry had decided were ‘the facts’ about GM crops were not the only facts that members of the public were interested in.

Self-driving cars promise to be transformational. The people currently in the driving seat don’t have all the answers. Nor do they know what all of the relevant questions are. If I were PAVE, I would be looking not to educate but to listen. There is an urgent need for dialogue. If experience with previous emerging technologies is anything to go by, PAVE’s current approach risks patronising and alienating the public that it wants to persuade.

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