Serious accidents involving self-driving cars have damaged US trust in the technology, according to a new survey.
The latest report from the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) multi-year tracking study indicates that consumer trust in autonomous vehicles has been badly hit by recent accidents, such as the fatal incident involving an Uber car in Arizona in March, and the crash that killed the driver of a Tesla running on Autopilot a week later in California.
The report finds that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of American drivers now say they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 63 percent in late 2017. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of US adults said they would feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle while walking or riding a bicycle.
Of particular cause for concern for Uber, Tesla, Waymo, Apple, and the many traditional automakers who are working on the technology, the biggest fall in consumer confidence has been recorded among the technology’s core supporters. The percentage of millennials who would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle has increased from 49 percent to 64 percent since late 2017.
Megan Foster, the AAA’s director of Federal Affairs, said that 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. “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,” she said.
Greg Brannon, the AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations, said that despite their enormous potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations of safety today, after decades of manufacturers making traditional motoring safer.
“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,” he said.
The organisation said it supported thorough testing of automated vehicle technologies as they continue to evolve, including testing under progressively more complicated scenarios and varying conditions – but not at the expense of people’s safety.
To help prevent the accidental misuse or deliberate abuse of autonomous systems, the AAA advocates for a common sense, common nomenclature and classification system, and for similar performance characteristics to be developed among future autonomous vehicles.
“There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today’s safety systems,” said Brannon. “Learning how to operate a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous technology is challenging enough without having to decipher the equipment list and corresponding level of autonomy.”
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The autonomous car sector faces an enormous PR challenge. While the technology’s developers are right to point out that the handful of major accidents involving cars running under software control are minuscule compared to the 1.2 million deaths every year involving traditional motorists, that vast (and unacceptable) death toll equates to one life lost for every 1,000 existing cars on the road.
That’s far too many, but two deaths in one month involving software-controlled cars is a very high number relative to the few cars that are capable of driving themselves over any distance. For example, there are only 409 autonomous test vehicles in total on the road in California, one of the few US states that allows testing.
In pure statistical terms, driverless cars aren’t safer yet.
And while vastly more people die on the road in driver-operated cars, even one death caused by the apparent failure of autonomous software, sensors, or other technologies, has a disproportionately large impact on confidence, as the AAA survey demonstrates.
Tesla didn’t help matters earlier this year when it insisted in an email to Internet of Business that a piece of software misleadingly called ‘Autopilot’ was merely driver-assistance technology, and that all its drivers should be holding the wheel and watching the road. The point the company missed is that the dead Tesla owner trusted Autopilot to look after him. It didn’t.
As we reported recently, there is also a powerful cultural aspect to driverless vehicles that, bafflingly, automakers seem to have overlooked. The US is a car-owning, driver-based culture more than any other nation on Earth – certainly far more than China, where mass car ownership is a relatively new concept.
The idea of the lone driver out on the highway is deeply rooted in the American psyche, and in the US economy, where over 3.5 million people earn a living as drivers. In many states, driving is the most common job; that’s a lot of latent hostility to autonomous vehicles, particularly in the current protectionist climate.
Meanwhile, another survey released in February this year revealed that Chinese citizens are much more supportive of autonomous vehicle technology, and are far more likely to trust it.
Sixty-three percent of Chinese respondents said that driverless cars will increase safety, versus just 34 percent of Americans in that survey. Seventy-one percent of Chinese interviewees said that they trusted carmakers’ cybersecurity competence, versus just 41 percent in the US. Since then, the AAA report demonstrates that trust has fallen even further in the US.
In 2015, car ownership in China hit 172 million; an impressive figure, but significantly less than the 263.6 million vehicles registered in the US, in a population that is one-quarter the size of China’s. Put another way, there are 20 million more cars in America than there are adults to drive them, while in China only one in eight people owns a car, making it a much easier market to disrupt at scale.
Persuading millions of Americans take their hands off the wheel is a much bigger challenge than the industry seems to have prepared for – especially when the majority of driverless technologies are unable to go outside well-mapped city limits, and therefore face huge safety challenges on rural roads everywhere, and on the much older road systems in the UK and Europe.
And there is another challenge with the driverless concept, and it was raised by former BMW chief executive Olaf Kastner earlier this year. He said, “The system won’t work perfectly until all vehicles on the roads are driverless. Safety will be an issue for as long as they have to share the space with traditional cars.”
Factor in the problem that hacking driverless cars and trucks will – it stands to reason – be a growing crime in the years ahead, and the industry should make fewer assumptions about its own success than it appears to have made to date.
Additional reporting and analysis: Chris Middleton.