AAA Survey: Americans are Warming to Driverless Cars

Americans are warming to the idea of riding in self-driving vehicles, although they’re still wary of sharing the road with them.

While a majority of U.S. drivers still say they’re afraid of riding in a fully autonomous vehicle, a new AAA survey finds that fewer are expressing those fears than in previous years.

Sixty-three percent of motorists tell the organization that they’re uncomfortable with the idea of ceding all control to a self-driving system. That’s down from 78 percent during an identical survey released in March 2017, and the reduction in 15 percentage points equates to a rise in trust of roughly 20 million licensed drivers, says AAA. This is the third consecutive year the organization has conducted a survey that provides a snapshot glance at driver attitudes toward advanced driver technology and autonomous vehicles.

The change portends good things for automakers and tech companies hoping to launch limited commercial services, in some cases as early as 2019. Beyond engineers developing competent self-driving systems and lawmakers creating a regulatory climate that welcomes these cars, consumer acceptance is a central component in that push toward autonomous travel.

“It’s not making a car that drives itself and removing the steering wheel that’s the hard part,” says Grayson Brulte, a consultant developing automated-vehicle strategies and co-chair of an autonomous-vehicle task force set up by the city of Beverly Hills, California. “It’s convincing the public and building experiences that a consumer actually wants.”

With ongoing pilot projects in major U.S. cities such as San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and soon Atlanta, more Americans are being exposed to self-driving vehicles, and that gradual experience might be playing a part in the friendlier attitudes.

So, too, is the influx of semi-automated technology into today’s cars. As motorists get more acquainted with features such as automated emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, the experience eases their concerns about an autonomous future. AAA found that drivers who own vehicles equipped with these advanced driver-assist systems were 75 percent more likely to trust self-driving systems than those whose cars lack these features.

Yet the AAA survey, which derived its results from 1004 respondents contacted on their mobile or traditional phones, offered mixed sentiments on the adoption of these technologies. While experience with driver-assist systems made motorists more trusting of the fully autonomous systems still to come, only 51 percent of respondents wanted semi-autonomous technology in the next vehicle they buy or lease. That’s down from 59 percent in early 2017.

Broadly speaking, it appears that drivers remain leery of sharing the road with autonomous vehicles. In the survey, only 13 percent of drivers said they would feel safer sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle, while 46 percent actually feel less safe on shared roads. Thirty-seven percent feel the technology would make no difference, and 4 percent are unsure, according to the survey results.

Given that roads are shared with drunk drivers, who were responsible for 10,497 deaths on American roads in 2016; and with distracted drivers, who killed 3450 people in 2016; and with drowsy drivers, who killed 803 in 2016, according to the latest federal statistics, you might think sharing the road with automated systems that never drink, look at their smartphones or fall asleep, would be a reassuring proposition. But the expressed concern is a good reminder for businesses that have made road-safety improvement a compelling part of their message that their self-driving technology must show results once it hits the road.

Some companies are embracing that path. Asked in October about consumer reluctance to ride in self-driving vehicles, Waymo chief executive officer John Krafcik said he thought surveys like AAA’s and others on the topic offered encouraging results, considering that self-driving cars aren’t widely available to the public.

“We’ve read these surveys that say only half of drivers are comfortable,” he said. “We look at that and say: ‘That’s so cool. Half the drivers are already comfortable!’ It’s a reasonable starting place. And we have a role to play in that going forward.”

As featured in Car and Driver on January 25, 2018.