What a difference a few months makes. American drivers are growing increasingly wary of self-driving cars and the technology used in autonomous drive systems, according to a just-released study by roadside services provider AAA. Whether they are behind the wheel, with the car handling driving duties or simply sharing a road with self-driving cars, the study found most respondents are putting less trust in this emerging technology.
Almost three-quarters of those surveyed (73 percent) said they would be too afraid to ride in a completely self-driving vehicle. This represents a notable jump from a previous AAA study, released in January, that found 63 percent of those surveyed reported being too scared to ride in a fully self-driving car.
This earlier study marked an encouraging trend — at least for tech companies and automakers heavily invested in an autonomously driven future — that showed confidence was growing in self-driving systems. However, a series of recent high-profile car crashes appears to have rattled the auto industry, along with the public perception regarding whether self-driving cars are safe.
In March, a self-driving Volvo XC90 being tested by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. The Uber engineer behind the wheel of the Volvo was not in control of the vehicle at the time, and the car's sensors did not react when a pedestrian suddenly crossed into the vehicle's path.
Tesla has similarly found itself making headlines due to concerns that its Autopilot autonomous drive system is lulling drivers into a false sense of overconfidence.
"There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today's safety systems," said Greg Brannon, AAA's director of automotive engineering and industry relations. "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."
A fiery and fatal accident in California involving a Tesla Model X appears to have been caused when the Autopilot system didn't detect a modified median separating the highway lanes. More recent cases include a non-fatal crash in Utah, where a Tesla Model S slammed into the back of a firetruck while traveling in Autopilot mode, and a crash in California where a Model S drove off the road and into a pond. The driver was killed, and it remained unclear whether the car was under human control or operating in self-driving mode at the time of the crash.
"Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety," Brannon explained. "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."
It's not simply a matter of being worried when behind the wheel of an autonomous car, however. The AAA study found many respondents are nervous about simply sharing the road with self-driving cars. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (63 percent) said they would feel less safe walking or bicycling on a road where self-driving cars were present.
This dwindling consumer confidence isn't limited to older generations either. In fact, the AAA study concluded that millennials are less convinced of the merits of self-driving tech than before. In the two recent surveys, millennial drivers too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle jumped from 49 percent to 64 percent. That represented the biggest change in perception of any generation participating in the survey.
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