Most people expect driverless cars to become common, and they worry about it

|     Ashley Halsey III     |

MOST Americans think autonomous cars will be quite common within 15 years, though 74 per cent of people say they don’t expect to have one, and two-thirds say they wouldn’t want to walk or ride a bicycle anywhere near one.

Confusing? That’s in part because the results come from three different recent surveys on Americans’ attitudes toward autonomous cars.

Taken together, however, they underscore widespread misgivings about the autonomous vehicles that people expect will be among them shortly, the challenge that automakers face in marketing them, and a need for safety reassurances from federal regulators.

Most Americans – 70 per cent, according to an HNTB survey being released on Monday – have softened to the idea that driverless cars factor in their future, whether they plan to ride in one or not.

Developments that portend the future of autonomous cars came in a double dose last week. First, a prominent technology investment firm, SoftBank Vision Fund, promised to invest USD2.25 billion in General Motors’ autonomous vehicle operation. Then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced it would provide “up to 62,000” Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans to Waymo, the pioneering autonomous-car company.

A driverless Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S car maneuvers to a parking space during a demonstration in Stuttgart, Germany, on May 28. – WP-BLOOMBERG

With several dozen companies working to develop autonomous cars or put them on the road, the vehicles’ presence is inevitable. But before the cars “become commonplace within 15 years,” as the HNTB survey says, a massive change in attitude will be necessary.

“Some of the things that popped out at me in all three surveys was that the majority of people are currently unwilling to ride in an automated vehicle,” said Jim Barbaresso, who leads the Intelligent Transportation Systems Practice at HNTB, an infrastructure solutions firm.

In the HNTB survey, 55 per cent of people said they wouldn’t ride in an autonomous vehicle. A survey last month by American Automobile Association (AAA) put that number at 73 per cent, and one by the group Consumer Watchdog that came out three days later had nearly the same result at 74 per cent.

When AAA’s report came out, Greg Brannon, the group’s director of engineering, made what may be a key point, saying, “Any incident involving an autonomous vehicle is likely to shake consumer trust, which is a critical component to the widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles.”

A simple reading of recent headlines might explain the misgivings.

Uber pulled its test autonomous cars from service after one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March. A Waymo test vehicle with a human at the wheel crashed when another motorist swerved into it last month, also in Arizona.

When Tesla’s vehicles in driver-assist mode have crashed, the technology has been confused with fully autonomous cars, creating bulletins such as ‘Tesla driver dies in first fatal autonomous car crash’. And when a truck backed into a self-driving bus in Las Vegas last November, a headline said, ‘Las Vegas’ self-driving bus crashes in first hour of service’.

After several blasts of negative publicity, AAA found that the number of millennials who said they were unwilling to ride in a driverless car had increased from 49 per cent at the end of 2017 to 64 per cent last month, and that overall, nearly three-quarters of the people they quizzed said they wouldn’t drive one.

But Barbaresso points out that in an era when the ubiquitous iPhone is less than a dozen years old, technology is bounding forward. He wasn’t surprised when

seven in 10 people said they expected driverless cars to be common 15 years from now.

“It didn’t surprise me because the technology is advancing quite rapidly,” he said. “A lot can happen in 15 years. There’s a reluctance to ride in an automated vehicle right now, but 15 years from now? The willingness to ride in such vehicles will increase dramatically over that period of time.”

The HNTB report added nuance to the findings about people ages 18 to 34, noting that a majority of them think that autonomous cars are safer than those with human drivers and that they would make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. HNTB’s survey ran counter to AAA, finding that 60 per cent of millennials said they’re ready to climb into one of the cars.

“Younger generations are certainly tech savvy,” Barbaresso said. “The millennials, even the Gen Xs in some cases, appear to have greater willingness to ride in an automated vehicle versus other generations.”

In 15 years, the youngest of the millennials will be 33 and the youngest Gen Xers will be 50. If autonomous cars are to become commonly accepted by then, Barbaresso says that it will take company marketing efforts that emphasise the cars’ safety.

“I think public education, also. And the government agencies need to step up, too, to ensure safety,” he said. “Automated vehicles are very polite. They follow traffic rules. Human drivers aren’t necessarily the same way.” The Washington Post