The Fuse

Public Opinion Shifts on Autonomous Vehicles

by Matt Piotrowski | January 30, 2018

U.S. consumer perceptions toward autonomous vehicles (AVs) are moving in the right direction. Multiple longitudinal surveys show that Americans are warming up to the idea of riding in AVs as automakers pour money into self-driving technology and companies have conducted public education campaigns on the safety benefits of autonomy. However, the positive news is tempered by the fact that over half of the public remains skeptical of the technology.

Increasing public acceptance of AV technology has been driven by the significant investments and growing publicity around the technology, but public trust is also imperative to making the tens of billions of dollars invested ultimately worthwhile.

In a comprehensive global study, Deloitte shows how sharply attitudes have shifted in just the past year. Deloitte’s study, an annual look at consumer transportation preferences, says that 47 percent of Americans do not believe AVs are safe, down from 74 percent last year. Similar trends are occurring in all major markets. In Germany, for instance, 45 percent say AVs will not be safe, versus 72 percent last year. Consumers in China, the world’s largest car market, appear more enthusiastic about the new technology, with only 26 percent saying AVs will not be safe. That is a remarkable shift from 62 percent last year.

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A new survey released by the American Automobile Association (AAA) also shows growing acceptance of AVs. AAA finds that 63 percent of Americans remain hesitant about riding in a fully automated vehicle, down sharply from 78 percent one year.

Increasing public acceptance of AV technology has been driven by the significant investments and growing publicity around the technology, but public trust is also imperative to making the tens of billions of dollars invested ultimately worthwhile. A study by the Brookings Institute late last year said that over the past few years at least $80 billion has been poured into AV investment. A Pew survey from October stated that 94 percent of Americans say they know about self-driving cars. “Awareness of driverless vehicles is high across a range of demographic groups,” Pew said.

Another likely factor behind the change in attitudes is that “trusted brands,” mainly traditional car manufacturers, have been testing autonomous technology and have laid out plans for AVs to be used commercially in coming years. Consumers in the U.S. are more willing to accept autonomy with traditional car companies. As Deloitte notes, 63 percent of U.S. consumers would be more likely to ride in an AV if it is with a brand they trust.

Companies and regulators communicating to the public that increased safety—and the possibility of one day eliminating traffic accidents altogether—will be one of the top benefits of AVs has also likely contributed to the shift in opinion in the past year. The Pew survey noted that worry over accidents is the main concern Americans have regarding AVs. Given that more than 37,000 deaths occur on U.S. roadways each year, regulators and industry will continue to push the message that taking the driver out of the equation will actually make roads safer.

Federal legislation will encourage initial deployments, and analysts are confident that consumers will continue to become more accepting of AVs over time as they develop additional knowledge of the technology, have positive experiences in self-driving cars, and see costs decline.

Passage of comprehensive federal legislation will help shift perceptions on safety, too. The House’s AV legislation—the SELF DRIVE Act—passed in September, while the Senate version has passed through committee but is yet to see a floor vote. The legislation will encourage initial deployments, and analysts are confident that consumers will continue to become more accepting of AVs over time as they develop additional knowledge of the technology, have positive experiences in self-driving cars, and see costs decline. Transportation-on-demand services should also contribute to consumers becoming more comfortable with AVs. These services continue to increase in popularity, and have more upside potential. Deloitte’s study points out that 23 percent of consumers use ride-hailing or ridesharing weekly while another 22 percent said they utilize them “once in a while.” A majority who use ride-hailing or ridesharing are considering not owning a personal vehicle.

Industry sees the recent trends as encouraging. “We’ve read these surveys that say only half of drivers are comfortable,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said. “… It’s a reasonable starting place. And we have a role to play in that going forward.” AVs are similar to many other consumer technology innovations—with initial public uncertainty yielding to adoption as consumers become more comfortable with new technologies. Once AVs can be used safely and consistently in everyday conditions, skepticism from consumers should continue to decline.

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