U.S. drivers are scared of self-driving cars, and yet they still want the benefits they can bring. It all boils down, says an American Automobile Association (AAA) survey, to a combination of mistrust and laziness. "With the rapid advancement towards autonomous vehicles, American drivers may be hesitant to give up full control," said AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair John Nielsen, but almost two-thirds of Americans appreciate the convenience that this automation brings.
Like any new technology, autonomous vehicles won’t instantly replace current technology. And even without us realizing, our cars already do much of the driving for us, thanks to adaptive braking, automatic parking, lane-following, and so on. What scares drivers, says the AAA, is giving up that last bit of control, telling the car which direction to point in and how fast to go.
"Among those who do not want semi-autonomous features on their next vehicle," says the survey, "drivers cite trusting their driving skills more than the technology." This is plain wrong. Autonomous cars are better drivers than humans. "[A self-driving car] doesn’t get distracted or tired, misjudge traffic conditions, talk or text on a cell phone, or suffer road rage," Nielsen
Cars are the top cause of death for Americans under 34—there were 32,719 deaths in 2013 alone. And while the sample size is much lower, autonomous cars haven’t yet killed anyone. And yet 75% of U.S. drivers "would be afraid to allow an autonomous vehicle to drive itself with them in it."
"It’s clear that education is the key to addressing consumer hesitation towards these features," says Nielsen. The numbers back this up. The AAA survey says that around half of all respondents cited "not knowing enough about it as a reason for not wanting semi‐autonomous technology."
The mistrust of technology is balanced by laziness. Sixty one percent of respondents want automatic features in their next vehicle, including self-parking and automatic emergency braking.
As self-driving vehicles become more widespread, most likely in the form of buses and other public transport to begin with, people will get accustomed to them and be more willing to let the car do all the driving for them. In fact, the survey found that the more semi-autonomous features we have in our cars, the more likely we are to trust them.
As you might expect, young people are much more enthusiastic about self-driving cars than old folks. Millennials want the convenience that autonomous tech brings—no surprise when you remember that they’re not interested in cars or driving, whereas baby boomers are interested in safety above all else. Interestingly, nobody seems to want car tech just for its own sake. "Wanting the latest technology" was way down the list of reasons to favor autonomous, even among tech-infused millennials, of whom only 36% listed it as a priority.
This survey highlights the importance of the public buying into the idea of self-driving cars, but it also shows how effective the auto industry has been in stealthily adding autonomous technology, year after year, without scaring anybody off. In fact, the car industry already seems to know the secret to selling Americans on self-driving cars: safety and convenience. It’s an arms race, fought on the battlefield of comparison shopping.
Fully autonomous cars seem almost inevitable now, with one big barrier to their adoption—one day, before too long, a robot car will kill somebody, and the company that built that car will have a PR fight on its hands. Luckily for them, and for the safety of everyone else, us humans have proved to have a short attention span when it comes to corporations behaving badly. If we’re already buying Volkswagens and filling them up with BP gas, then it won’t take us long to forget who made the first killer car.