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Self-Driving Cars Still Scare a Majority of Americans

A growing number of Americans are hesitant to climb into a self-driving car. And some of the most reticent are millennials.

These are some of the new findings by a AAA survey polling passengers’ comfort level with autonomous vehicles, following high-profile accidents involving AVs. The poll, conducted April 5-8 via mobile phones and land lines with 1,014 participants, found that 73 percent of U.S. drivers “would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle.” This is up from 63 percent at the end of 2017. The margin of error was +/- 4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

The poll also found that 64 percent of millennials “would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle.” This is up from 49 percent in the previous survey. This increase was the sharpest among any group surveyed.

These survey results showing a decreasing comfort level around AVs are “no surprise,” said Kelley Coyner, CEO of Mobility e3, a transportation company that helps communities plan, pilot and deploy AV fleets.

“We’ve seen these kinds of ups and downs, generally without explanation,” said Coyner, before adding, “It’s instructive. But it’s not conclusive.”

“There’s always been this sort of interesting paradox about the safety of AVs. And we pretty much know that if we can start deploying them — even at very low levels of automation — we’d have significant savings in life, and property and injuries. And, we’re fearful of them, at the same time,” she added. “So there’s this question of 'How do we cut through that?'”

Companies involved in autonomous vehicles, said Coyner, ought to continue to put AVs in the public space where they can be seen and experienced, such as the work currently being done in Las Vegas, where Keolis has partnered with AAA to operate a low-speed autonomous shuttle in downtown since November 2017.

And consequently, communities should have demonstrations “to give people an opportunity to see them,” said Coyner.

“Industry collaboration and partnerships are key to the successful development of this technology,” said John Moreno, a spokesman for AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah, in an email. AAA recently partnered with Torc Robotics, a Virginia-based maker of AV technology, to develop safety criteria for self-driving vehicles.

Setting up safety and testing protocols are likely the best place to start when it comes to building buy-in by the public, said Coyner.

“We ought to have a transparent way … to verify the safety of the autonomy before it’s road-tested,” she added. “And there are tools to do that. And it’s not that the companies aren’t doing that themselves. It’s just that it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence when it’s just them. It’s looking to have these sort of eyes on it.”

It’s unclear what to make of the millennial skepticism about autonomous vehicle safety, say observers.

“It’s possible that the millennial audience is more connected and engaged in the development of this technology, as they are poised to become a key demographic situated to experience the benefits of this technology in their lifetime,” Moreno said.

“What I’d say is what that’s consistent with is millennials saying that they want to retain the right to drive, or the opportunity to drive,” offered Coyner. “And, it also is combined with the sort of delayed licensure and decreasing car-ownership in that group.

“I think what it sort of says is, millennials can’t be neatly classified,” she added.

The topic of self-driving cars is being hotly discussed among policymakers like city and transportation planners, safety officials and private-sector technology companies with a role in their evolution and deployment.

For now, some of the most forward-moving development of AVs is in low-speed electric shuttle use, seen in numerous cities that have introduced pilot projects. Survey results from AAA show that the Las Vegas shuttle has been an overwhelmingly positive experience with 98 percent of riders saying they would recommend the shuttle to others. These vehicles, with their low speeds, tend to give riders a wider sense of confidence that a crash will not happen and could prove effective at transporting passengers short distances and possibly closing first-mile, last-mile gaps.

“Speed kills,” said Coyner. “And we’re probably not ready for high-speed vehicles to be on the road without these other safety precautions. And when it comes to thinking about how it impacts a city, my take is, go with low-speed. I call it ‘community speed.’”


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