Autonomous vehicles seem like a science fiction topic more so than an automotive one, but industry experts are plugging away, refining the technology and determining its role in society. That is the abbreviated version anyway. Those working on autonomous cars are, essentially, trying to make them viable, scalable, and ultimately profitable.
Autonomous cars usher in a flood of headline commitments from manufacturers and companies. The benefits of driverless cars – far more than the risks – are communicated, and it seems almost too Utopian at times. This is not to say autonomous cars don’t have benefits – they certinately do – and this is not to say autonomous cars won’t one day hit the road – they certinately will.
Yet how quickly they will, and how quickly society will realize those benefits is another matter.
And how does the public feel about all this? The short answer is not so good.
AAA recently concluded a multi-year tracking study that examined how consumers feel about driverless cars. The study found that, despite the industry’s headline commitments and grand visions, 73 percent of Americans say they are too afraid to ride in an autonomous car. This represents a steady increase too – only late last year, the figure was 63 percent. The jump is likely attributed to the recent, highly publicized accidents involving autonomous technology.
“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.”
Over 60 percent say they would actually feel less safe sharing the road with an autonomous car, especially if they were walking or riding a bicycle. Even millennials, a generation one might think would readily embrace them, are cautious. AAA’s study found that 64 percent of millennials are too afraid to fully trust autonomous cars, up from 49 percent just a year ago. This metric represented the largest increase of any generation surveyed.
“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,” explained 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.”
“We have to manage expectations better, especially on the timing of when these vehicles will be part of our everyday lives,” added Cliff Banks, Founder and President of The Banks Report, an automotive retail publication. “We should be skeptical of the claims made by executives touting the technology.”
With the release of the study, AAA is advocating for what they call a common sense approach to driverless cars. This includes a universal nomenclature and classification system, with clear definitions as to what the varying automated technologies are and how they work.
“There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today’s safety systems,” Brannon explained. “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.”
“I’m not sure anyone can properly define what an autonomous vehicle is yet,” Banks said. “Also, commercials from automakers such as Nissan and Cadillac touting their driver assist technology as hands-free creates confusion.”
Previous testing of automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, self-parking technology, and lane keeping assist have shown great promise, according to AAA officials. These systems are becoming more common on today’s cars and are a precursor to autonomous driving. Still, the organization says this recent study reaffirms the need for ongoing, unbiased testing of such technologies. This remains key in earning the public’s trust and acceptance.
“Once autonomous vehicles hit the mainstream and become a normal part of the landscape, public acceptance will be a non-issue,” Banks said. “I’m sure people felt unsafe the first time they got onto any kind of moving device, whether it be a horse, a wagon, or a train or an airplane.”
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan. He studies mechanical engineering at Wayne State University, serves on the Board of Directors for the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, and is a loyal Detroit Lions fan.