In Wake of Crashes, Public Confidence in Self-driving Cars Pulls a U-Turn

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Uber Volvo Autonomous

Following a Wild West-like expansion in autonomous vehicle testing, coupled with years of rosy predictions from automakers and Silicon Valley types, the public seemed ready to embrace self-driving cars with open arms.

Opinion polls showed significant distrust in the technology, but least among young adults, the idea of self-driving cars remained a popular one. That’s changed, apparently. 

According to an ongoing tracking study conducted by the American Automobile Association, public perception of self-driving vehicles took a major hit in the wake of highly reported accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. As self-piloted vehicles leave the realm of TED talks and urban planning fantasies and enter the real world, deficiencies and faults inevitable crop up. The dangers of unperfected technology are laid bare.

In AAA’s survey of just over 1,000 adults, 73 percent of American drivers said they would refuse to ride in a self-driving car. That’s up from the 63 percent recorded in a similar survey late last year. Of the respondents, 63 percent say they would feel less safe sharing the road with AVs as a pedestrian or cyclist.

Chalk much of the about-face up to the fatal March collision between an autonomous Volvo XC90 operated by Uber Technologies and a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. In that incident, the Uber vehicle failed to react after encountering Elaine Herzberg walking her bike across a darkened street. The company suspended testing in the wake of the collision. Recently, a report surfaced stating that the vehicle’s onboard sensors recognized the pedestrian, but choose to ignore what it thought was a “false positive.”

Certainly, the fatal crash of a Tesla in Mountain View, California in late March didn’t do anything to improve the public’s perception of autonomous technology (even though the vehicle’s Autopilot features can’t be classified as such. Well, not anymore).

“Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “Our results show that any incident involving an autonomous vehicle is likely to shake consumer trust, which is a critical component to the widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles.”

Millennials, always quick to embrace new technologies, seem spooked by the incidents. In the latest survey, Millennial-aged respondents pulled the largest U-turn of any demographic, with 64 percent saying they’d be too afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle. That’s up from 49 percent in late 2017.

“While autonomous vehicles are being tested, there’s always a chance that they will fail or encounter a situation that challenges even the most advanced system,” said Megan Foster, AAA’s director of Federal Affairs. “To ease fears, there must be safeguards in place to protect vehicle occupants and the motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians with whom they share the road.”

Well, yes. It’s looking more and more likely that a standardization of required autonomous hardware lies on the horizon, rather than today’s hodge-podge of radar, lidar, and cameras. We’ve seen drawbacks ranging from preventable death to rider inconvenience (check out this video of a Waymo minivan trying, and failing, to merge) since the onset of real-world testing, and the public’s watching. It seems they don’t like what they see.

[Image: Waymo]