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Remembering When Driverless Elevators Drew Skepticism


Now, as Google and other companies work to create self-driving cars, there's a concern in the industry. This is the question. Will people be comfortable getting inside? Would you put your child in a car without a steering wheel? The very idea makes many of us nervous. But every new automatic device that enters our lives, from automatic doors to escalators, has had to face this awkward moment where people are skeptical and maybe scared. Steve Henn from NPR's Planet Money podcast has one example we hardly think of anymore.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: When elevators were invented, they were kind of terrifying. I mean, think about it. You're hanging hundreds of feet in the air by a cable. And elevator operators in those days guided the cars to level stops by hand. They opened and closed the doors manually. And sometimes, they made mistakes. Lee Gray wrote the definitive history of the passenger elevator.

LEE GRAY: There were lots of times when as a businessman you might say, oh, the elevator's leaving. And you hurry up, and you sort of jump the gap into the car and land. And off you go just before the operator shuts the door. And if you're athletic, it's all good. If you trip and fall and you're laying half in and half out of the car, the operator's not going to have time to stop. And that ended rather badly.

HENN: Now, this was not the image the elevator industry wanted for its brand-new transportation device. So they added doors with safety bumpers, automatic stopping. And eventually, they created a driverless elevator. And this was in 1900. This was amazing. It was the Google car of its era. And people hated it.

GRAY: People walked in and looked and walked right back out. They would quickly step back out and try to find someone to say where's the operator?

HENN: But then, in 1945, elevator operators in New York went on strike. New York City ground to a halt. The strike costs New York a hundred million dollars in lost taxes. It prevented one and a half million office workers from getting to work. Building owners demanded a change. And the elevator industry decided they had to convince people to rethink what an elevator was.

GRAY: Early ads, they showed children pushing the buttons and grandma riding in the elevator car showing how safe this is.

HENN: And for the nervous rider there was a soothing voice piped out of speakers when you walked inside.

GRAY: This is an automatic elevator. Please press the button for the floor you desire.

HENN: And this voice directed you to the biggest calming device ever invented, a big red button that said, stop.

GRAY: It would say, you have pulled the emergency stop. If this is not an emergency, please push it back in. If this is an emergency, please use the phone.

HENN: And these innovations worked. Today, you can almost count the number of elevator operators in New York City using your fingers and toes. And the lessons here are being examined by Google's designers right now as they build their self-driving car. But there's one part of the elevator's history Google does not want to repeat. The automatic elevator was invented around 1900, but it took more than 50 years before the public became comfortable and automatic elevators became ubiquitous. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.