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Self-driving car crashes put a dent in consumer trust, poll says

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Nearly 75 percent of Americans are too afraid to ride in a driverless vehicle

Image: ABC 15

Trust in self-driving cars is slipping after several high-profile crashes, two of them fatal, thrust driverless cars into a negative spotlight, a new poll finds. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of American drivers report they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. That number is up significantly from 63 percent in late 2017, according to a survey conducted by AAA. Additionally, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of US adults report they would feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle while walking or riding a bicycle.

In March, a self-driving test vehicle owned by Uber hit and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona. A few weeks later, a Tesla being driven with Autopilot crashed and caught fire on a California freeway, resulting in the driver’s death. There were also several other crashes involving self-driving cars resulting in minor injuries.

With these crashes as a backdrop, AAA contacted 1,014 adults on their phones (both landlines and cellphones) during the first week of April. They were asked three questions:

Are U.S. drivers comfortable with the idea of riding in a fully self-driving car? Are U.S. drivers comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with a self-driving car while walking or riding a bike? Do U.S. drivers want semi- autonomous technologies in their next vehicle?

Some of the key findings were as follows:

  • One in five (20 percent) US drivers would trust a self-driving vehicle, and 7 percent are unsure.
  • Women (83 percent) are more likely to be afraid than men (63 percent).
  • Two-thirds (64 percent) of millennial drivers would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 49 percent at the end of 2017. This represents the largest increase of any generation surveyed.

This survey is line with other recent polls that have shown an increasing skepticism toward self-driving cars. But it’s easy to lose sight of a fundamental truth: most people still don’t know what to think about this new technology because they have yet to experience it firsthand. There are a handful of tests being conducted on public roads in states like Arizona, California, Texas, Georgia, and Michigan. But there are no self-driving cars being sold at dealerships, nor are there any robot taxis providing trips at any meaningful scale.

“This technology is relatively new and everyone is watching it closely,” said Greg Bannon, director of automotive engineering at AAA, in a statement. “When an incident occurs, it gets a lot of media attention, and people become concerned about their safety.”

To be human is to fear the unknown. And since only a tiny fraction of people have ever had the experience of riding in a self-driving car, most still fear them: the loss of control, the distrust of the technology, the fear of malicious hacking, etc. The companies that hope to eventually make lots of money on autonomous vehicles realize their promised riches will never materialize if they can’t convince ordinary people to go for a ride.

That’s why Intel is producing commercials featuring LeBron James, and Waymo is going overboard with its own ad campaign touting the safety of its technology. Slick marketing will obviously play a role in generating excitement, but it will take more than a few ads to convince enough people to set aside their fears and climb inside a driverless vehicle. How the industry responds to crashes involving self-driving cars — and there will be more to come — will play a bigger role in setting the tone moving forward.