The Fuse

It’s Not Yet Clear How Americans Feel About Driverless Cars

by Matt Piotrowski | October 13, 2016

What are Americans’ opinions about autonomous vehicles? No one knows for sure.

So far, polling data on driverless cars is contradictory and indicates mixed feelings among consumers. And just as important, some surveys highlight the fact that Americans don’t know much about autonomy in general. What to make so far of the conflicting results? And what might they say about the future of driverless vehicles in the U.S.? The public’s acceptance will be vital in order for them to penetrate the car fleet and bring about their numerous benefits, but so far broad approval in the future is not a foregone conclusion.

The public’s acceptance will be vital in order for them to penetrate the car fleet and bring about their numerous benefits, but so far broad approval in the future is not a foregone conclusion.

For most of this year, polls indicated that an overwhelming majority weren’t enthusiastic and held suspicious views of driverless vehicles. One major survey done by Morning Consult and Vox over the summer showed that just 32 percent of Americans think self-driving cars will improve their driving experience, while almost 50 percent believe the opposite. Some 35 percent say that autonomy will bring about fewer accidents and fatalities on the road, and more than half believe it won’t improve congestion.

Similarly, a recent survey by Kelley Blue Book said that an overwhelming 80 percent believe that humans should always have the option to be able to drive themselves and almost two-thirds say they need to control their own vehicle. Some 51 percent noted they want to remain the driver while in the car, even if it makes roads less safe. The KBB poll noted that an astonishing 59 percent are not even familiar with the term “autonomous vehicle.”

Will perceptions change?

 A recent poll from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) shows that American consumers may be more open to driverless technology than most had originally thought.

Will attitudes likely shift dramatically once the public becomes more educated? There are hints that may already be occurring. For instance, a recent poll from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) shows that American consumers may be more open to driverless technology than most had originally thought. The results showed that 70 percent were ready to try out an autonomous car and nearly as many are interested in replacing their current vehicles with a self-driving one. Furthermore, more than 80 percent were impressed with potential safety gains, which include limiting drunk driving deaths and cutting down on aggressive driving. The CTA touted the findings: “Clearly, drivers are getting more and more excited about everything that driverless cars will offer us—90 percent fewer U.S. traffic accidents, 40 percent lower insurance costs, the end of drunk driving accidents and newfound freedom for seniors and people with disabilities,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO, of CTA in a statement. “The broad adoption of self-driving vehicles will save tens of thousands of lives each year in the U.S. alone, and deliver a level of independence and mobility that seniors and people with disabilities couldn’t otherwise dream of enjoying.”

Testing, pilot programs crucial in shaping public opinion

The mixed results underscore the need to educate the public about the long-term benefits of autonomy. Not only is strong education needed to sway consumers’ perceptions; a lot hangs on current testing of self-driving cars and the success of pilot programs. For instance, Uber’s launch of an autonomous project in Pittsburgh is a case that could impact, for better or worse, opinions over the long term. So far, reviews have been mixed. One of Uber’s Ford Fusions had a minor fender bender (the other car, driven by a human, caused the accident), and there have been other anecdotes of problems, such as one of the cars going the wrong way on a one-way street. Google’s self-driving vehicles, meanwhile, have logged over 2 million miles and have been involved in two accidents. One occurred because of a failure in the car’s software, while the other was a crash that resulted from another vehicle running a red light. One more major incident regarding autonomy surrounds a fatal accident with Tesla’s semi-autonomous Model S, which happened when the car was on Autopilot, a system that controls the vehicle without the help of a human driver.

None of these occurrences are expected to ultimately hold back autonomous technology, but the more incidences that occur, the harder it will be for consumers to accept it.

Consumers excited but uncertain

How to reconcile the contradictions? First, it’s not unusual for consumers to be excited about new technology but also feel skeptical and unsure. Second, the fact that the population does not fully understand autonomy means that those polled are not yet informed enough to draw conclusions. Lastly, the polls themselves are inconsistent because of the different methodologies and questions asked. The CTA poll was conducted online, as well as the one from Morning Consult. All polls, no matter what the subject, need to be taken with a grain of salt given that they represent a relatively small sample of the population, and the phrasing of the questions can tilt results one way of the other. Online polling, meanwhile, brings about new challenges. First, not all segments of the population have Internet access, while many who do may not be active enough on line to take part in surveys. Furthermore, many of the participants who take part in online polling may have an agenda, making the complete survey unrepresentative of the greater population. “At worst, online polls can be seriously biased if people who hold a particular point of view are more motivated to participate than those with a different point of view,” noted Pew Research.

“At worst, online polls can be seriously biased if people who hold a particular point of view are more motivated to participate than those with a different point of view.”

As with any new technology, consumers are initially suspicious but their attitudes typically shift over time as they become more educated and comfortable with it. Crucially for autonomy, it’s vital that consumers get into the cars for rides so they can develop a certain level of comfort and trust, and fully understand their wide-ranging benefits. Despite its flaws, the CTA poll shows the public mood may continually evolve in time. However, even though there appears to be more excitement among consumers, it’s still an uphill battle for greater public acceptance, given the lack of awareness and overall skepticism.

 

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