Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

People used to be terrified of travelling in lifts. What changed?

Pushing the right buttons

People were once terrified of travelling in lifts without operators. Makers of driverless cars should take note, says Tom Standage

People were once terrified of travelling in lifts without operators. Makers of driverless cars should take note, says Tom Standage

Tom Standage | February/March 2019

If you work in an office or live in an apartment building, you probably ride in a lift several times a day without even thinking about it. You push the button for your floor, the doors close and off you go. It’s totally normal. But it didn’t seem so in America a century ago: most people were not prepared to travel in an elevator without an operator.

At the time, most lifts needed to be started and stopped manually. It took a bit of skill to align a lift with a particular floor, so a lift operator was required to guide it to its destination, and opened and closed the doors. In the 1890s, some buildings attempted to introduce fully automatic push-button elevators. But they failed to gain traction. Some people flat-out refused to ride in the operatorless kind, considering them unsafe.

In September 1945, New York’s 15,000 lift operators went on strike. That made it much harder for people to leave their homes or to get to work. Around 1.6m New Yorkers were forced to rely on their own two feet. “If you work on the 25th floor of some office building, you can’t walk up and down very often each day,” grumbled the New York Daily News. “The only alternative that we can think of would be for our big cities to decentralise…and flatten out to a maximum building height of six floors or so.”

The elevator industry had other plans. As other strikes followed in the late 1940s, it encouraged people to use lifts without operators. Buttons marked with different floors made the lift stop automatically in just the right place, so operating them was a doddle. The industry also devised automatic doors that did away with the need for manual opening and closing (though override buttons were also provided, to keep the doors open when needed). Recorded voices warned people to avoid the closing doors and offered instructions on how to operate the lift.

Perhaps the most important change was the addition of an emergency stop button that could be used to halt the lift at any time, and a telephone with which to summon assistance in the event of a problem. They provided a sense of reassurance to passengers so that, in the 1950s, people finally became comfortable using lifts without attendants. It would be extraordinary to find one these days.

That offers lessons to designers of driverless cars today. As with lifts, many people are reluctant to get into a car without a driver: 73% of Americans say they are afraid to travel in an autonomous vehicle. Riders need reassurance that they are safe. For the time being, autonomous vehicles have safety drivers or attendants who can take control if needed. But eventually the plan is to phase them out.

Accordingly, much thought is going into the design of the controls and information displays that are available to passengers. Self-driving vehicles being tested by Waymo and Uber have screens showing the surrounding environment, to reassure riders that the car is aware of a cyclist in the inside lane or a pedestrian stepping onto a crossing. They also have a “pull over” button, which instructs the vehicle to stop at the first safe opportunity. And the cars, like lifts, have an emergency “call for help” button that lets riders talk to a human supervisor.

Whether all this will be enough to persuade people to ride in self-driving vehicles will become clearer in 2019, as commercial robotaxi services become available. But the story of the lift is a reminder that encouraging people to ride in unusual new vehicles depends just as much on understanding human psychology as fancy technology.