Two seemingly unrelated incidents late in 2018 reveal some Americans’ deep-seated and justified fears of new technologies. In a new column, the Center’s director explores this high-stakes issue.


By Jeffrey Cole

Two incidents occurred shortly before the end of last year. The media paid them only a little attention and treated them as separate events. In truth, both events are linked, and they are part of what will be one of the most powerful trends of the next 50 years: anger and protest–sometimes violent protest–at the relentless advance of technology.

The first event occurred the weekend of December 22 in Hickory, North Carolina, when three large pick-up trucks blocked Tesla Superchargers, preventing the owners of the electric cars from charging their vehicles.

In the past, this has happened by mistake or when non-electric cars could not find parking spaces.

This incident was deliberate: it is called “icing.” ICE stands for internal combustion engine, and “icing” is when the owner of one of those cars, out of anger, intentionally blocks electric chargers. In the Hickory case, the pick-up drivers yelled obscenities at the Tesla drivers trying to charge.

The second event took place in Chandler, Arizona, around the same time when a man attacked a self-driving car operated by Alphabet’s (Google) autonomous arm, Waymo. He waited until the self-driving car was stopped at an intersection, and then ran behind it and slashed one of its tires.

Chandler is the town where Google began testing its self-driving cars in 2017. Since then, there have been over 25 incidents of intentional damage to the vehicles. In some of the incidents people threw bricks at the autonomous cars and tried to force them off the road. In other bouts of anger, protesters screamed at the driverless cars. In one incident, a man drove alongside the driverless car and threatened a person inside with a pipe.

In the most serious situation, a man waved a gun at the employee behind the wheel (not driving), announcing that he “despises” driverless cars.

In the future, we will look back at both of these events as the beginning of a trend where some citizens act out their frustration and anger at new technologies, particularly those that deeply affect one of their most cherished traditions: cars and driving.

The problem with the Tesla Superchargers is far less serious than the issues in Arizona with self-driving cars.

Hickory is one of the few supercharger stops in North Carolina along Highway 40, one of America’s most important interstates. The pick-up drivers knew they were blocking access to a charger at a time and place that would likely attract out-of-towners stopping in the middle of a trip.

To the pick-up drivers, the electric cars represent a challenge to a way of life with the traditional car experience at its center. There are no electric pick-up trucks, and when they do come they will not have loud engines with chrome tail pipes. That will represent a concession to what are perceived as liberal causes: alternative sources of energy and environmentalism.

Teslas, in particular, are seen as expensive cars (until recently a Tesla had an average price of about $80,000 up to $145,000) owned by liberal, urban (where most Teslas are) out-of-towners. Teslas, while made in the U.S., do not come from Detroit or the South. They come from the San Francisco Bay Area.

For the pick-up drivers, blocking the superchargers is acting out their anger at the loss of the cars they grew up with.


In the future, we will look back at both of these events as the beginning of a trend where some citizens act out their frustration and anger at new technologies, particularly those that deeply affect one of their most cherished traditions: cars and driving.


While the behavior is annoying to anyone trying to charge their cars, it is non-violent and relatively harmless. In time, the blockers may even come to appreciate the lower operating costs and extreme acceleration of electric cars.

The problem in Arizona is far more serious, and that behavior is neither non-violent nor harmless.

The anger in Chandler runs much deeper than fear of old ways being replaced. There is some of that fear behind the acting out toward driverless cars. Driving is one of the defining behaviors of the twentieth century. To many people, driving represents independence, exhilaration and joy (when there is not massive gridlock).

But the threat of driverless cars means far more than the loss of autonomy in driving. Far more important, driverless cars represent the beginning of many deeper changes where people lose their jobs to artificial intelligences (AI).

A continuum of fear

What happened in Chandler is part of a continuum that started with fear of immigrants. For the past generation, some Americans have believed that immigrants have come to steal their jobs. With immigrants, this fear pointed to relatively low-skilled jobs. With AI, the fear is for all jobs at all levels including lawyers and doctors.

The drivers in North Carolina see Teslas as symbols of those things that will annoy them and force change. The incidents in Arizona reflect genuine fear. That is why the level of protest and attack is so much higher in Arizona.

Driverless cars will change everything. They will save thousands of lives, give mobility to the young, old and infirm, improve traffic and lower prices. But they also come at a huge cost to human beings. They are part of a dark, callous future that many envision as they fear machines will replace them.

The anger at Tesla will dissipate over the next few years. We have passed the tipping point on the acceptance of electric cars. Most will come to look back and wonder how we could ever have loved gasoline-powered cars polluting the planet.

The anger we are seeing in Chandler, Arizona is just the beginning. I strongly believe we will look back in 30 years at the protests against driverless cars as the first, almost subliminal, uprising by the people who feel they will lose their control, jobs and security in the digital future.

It does not take a crystal ball to see demonstrations, rallies, strikes and riots against technology that is ripping apart the fabric of our culture and personal economies. This uprising could easily become one of the most important conflicts in our history.

The stakes are that high.

Look for many more examples of anger directed at new technology, and look for it quickly to move beyond cars as cashiers, bankers, factory workers and many others see their ways of life threatened with extinction.



Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



See all columns from the center.

February 13, 2019