By on May 22, 2018

Uber Volvo Autonomous

Following a Wild West-like expansion in autonomous vehicle testing, coupled with years of rosy predictions from automakers and Silicon Valley types, the public seemed ready to embrace self-driving cars with open arms.

Opinion polls showed significant distrust in the technology, but least among young adults, the idea of self-driving cars remained a popular one. That’s changed, apparently. 

According to an ongoing tracking study conducted by the American Automobile Association, public perception of self-driving vehicles took a major hit in the wake of highly reported accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. As self-piloted vehicles leave the realm of TED talks and urban planning fantasies and enter the real world, deficiencies and faults inevitable crop up. The dangers of unperfected technology are laid bare.

In AAA’s survey of just over 1,000 adults, 73 percent of American drivers said they would refuse to ride in a self-driving car. That’s up from the 63 percent recorded in a similar survey late last year. Of the respondents, 63 percent say they would feel less safe sharing the road with AVs as a pedestrian or cyclist.

Chalk much of the about-face up to the fatal March collision between an autonomous Volvo XC90 operated by Uber Technologies and a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. In that incident, the Uber vehicle failed to react after encountering Elaine Herzberg walking her bike across a darkened street. The company suspended testing in the wake of the collision. Recently, a report surfaced stating that the vehicle’s onboard sensors recognized the pedestrian, but choose to ignore what it thought was a “false positive.”

Certainly, the fatal crash of a Tesla in Mountain View, California in late March didn’t do anything to improve the public’s perception of autonomous technology (even though the vehicle’s Autopilot features can’t be classified as such. Well, not anymore).

“Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “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.”

Millennials, always quick to embrace new technologies, seem spooked by the incidents. In the latest survey, Millennial-aged respondents pulled the largest U-turn of any demographic, with 64 percent saying they’d be too afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle. That’s up from 49 percent in late 2017.

“While autonomous vehicles are being tested, there’s always a chance that they will fail or encounter a situation that challenges even the most advanced system,” said Megan Foster, AAA’s director of Federal Affairs. “To ease fears, there must be safeguards in place to protect vehicle occupants and the motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians with whom they share the road.”

Well, yes. It’s looking more and more likely that a standardization of required autonomous hardware lies on the horizon, rather than today’s hodge-podge of radar, lidar, and cameras. We’ve seen drawbacks ranging from preventable death to rider inconvenience (check out this video of a Waymo minivan trying, and failing, to merge) since the onset of real-world testing, and the public’s watching. It seems they don’t like what they see.

[Image: Waymo]

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16 Comments on “In Wake of Crashes, Public Confidence in Self-driving Cars Pulls a U-Turn...”

  • avatar

    What’s spooking people is that these vehicles are unable to cope with everyday situations that human drivers handle without a second thought.

    • 0 avatar

      That SOME humans handle without a second thought. Example: I was waiting for a crosswalk light yesterday. My walk light turns green, I step off the curb, and then step back as an SUV flies through the red light at about 40mph. Then the lady behind him goes flying through the red as well.

      I don’t want to hear about how bad the computers are. I see scores of horrible human drivers every single day.

  • avatar

    It’s a nomenclature issue, using terms such as “self-driving” and “autopilot” is like tap dancing on a minefield. Public confidence is shaken because the public had unrealistic expectations. These are cars with sensors, this is not Artificial Intelligence, at least not the sci-fi model of it.

    • 0 avatar

      True, but the sensors and radars have to have something making sense of them. In this case, it is indeed a form of AI.

      Unfortunately, what we’re finding is that the AI isn’t up to the job.

  • avatar

    I expected the U-Turn in public opinion. What surprised me is that Millennials are growing up! :)

    The current state of autonomous driving is layer upon layer of absurdity. It expects me, a fallible human, to monitor a newbie computer help me drive.

  • avatar

    Funny how you can see the media and tech-bro disconnect with cold, hard facts. According to them the population that doesn’t want self-driving is a minority, luddites, people who will be left behind when the reality is that as a whole group most actually don’t want it, but they’ll keep pushing it against our desires. Heck, half of why Trump’s win was so surprising to the media was because they discounted any dissenting voices as a minority because their own offices are so full of people who supported things the same as them that it was impossible for them to comprehend that they aren’t the only voice in the nation.

    • 0 avatar

      That is similar to people who spend their entire lives in academia. Some go from pre-k through graduate school and then right into teaching, an insular existence with no clue as to how the real world operates. They then pass their skewered worldview onto impressionable young people. Unions and tenure make it virtually impossible to get rid of crackpots and incompetents too.

    • 0 avatar

      Confirmation bias. We lazy humans need to brush up against dissenting opinions in a thoughtful instead of dismissive manner. Stop labeling opposing thought as “hate” speech (I totally dislike the use of such an extreme adjective in many cases as the one mentioned.) Start reasoning through an issue in a rational manner. I have little hope things will improve in this arena. I blame “social media” as a contributor in some part for this behavior. Knee jerk response instead of listening to understand. Blurt out/type a view based in large part on what is described as confirmation bias. You said it well junkandfrunk.

  • avatar

    Autonomous vehicles are created by HUMANS. The flaws of human nature are built into each design. Striving for perfection is reasonable. Actually ATTAINING perfection is a pipe dream.

    • 0 avatar

      The Cylons were created by man…they evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.

      • 0 avatar

        Dr. Daystrom impressed his own human engrams on his M-5 computer’s circuits and the Enterprise destroyed two starships during war games. AI is dangerous, that’s the lesson I took away from that show, about 50 years ago.

  • avatar

    You mean to tell me that a bunch of well-publicized crashes and incidents are turning people off?


    If the people developing this tech want our trust, then they have a long way to go.

  • avatar

    The industry needs a “standardized test” that the insurance industry / government provide to certify its capability.

    The certification also needs to provide a guideline on what to do with the road to make sure it is ok to self drive on (i.e. mainly roadwork readiness, communication for road conditions between cars up front and the cars in the rear, traffic condition up front on smart phone motion sensor network -> apple map or google map).

    You can’t make sure something is fail safe (nothing is bug free) unless you have a defined test.

  • avatar

    I still maintain that by law, each of these vehicles should be required to carry a large rotating red beacon on the roof (“gumball machine”), and be painted in bright yellow and black diagonal stripes. I mean, we require a truck carrying some pipes to put a red flag on the end of the pipes. Slow moving vehicles have to carry appropriate signs and lights too.

  • avatar

    i’m with those leery of robotic automobiles. i was nearly sideswiped by a baidu robot (a black lincoln) when i was riding my bike along cañada road in the bay area. thing came right across the solid white line marking the bike lane as it passed me. and on a straight road. i was underwhelmed. but there’s nowhere one can report these unwanted close encounters. the dmv’s site is useless on that account.

  • avatar

    This is part of SKYNET’s diabolical plan to coerce humans into autonomous vehicles – and send the command to override all safety features and exterminate all humans by locking the doors and driving the vehicles into walls, each other, or off the nearest cliff.

    DO NOT TRUST AUTONOMOUS VEHCILES! You have been warned!!!

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