Public Becoming More Apprehensive About Robotic Cars, Here's Our Best Guess as to Why

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Despite the public having become more aware of autonomous vehicles over the last several years, acceptance of the technology appears to be at an all-time low.

According to a recently published survey from Cox Automotive, general knowledge of self-driving cars has grown over the last two years by around 20 percent to 78 percent of a sample audience. However 68 percent of those respondents also felt the technology was potentially unsafe, which represents a nearly 20 percent increase within the same timeframe.

Likewise, general apprehension grew alongside the level of driving autonomy with complete computerized control being the scariest and 84 percent of the sample saying human drivers should always have the ability to take over when they wanted. The public appears to be turning against self-driving vehicles and automakers are going to need to figure out why because these findings are not an isolated incident.

The Cox survey yielded similar results from one conducted by AAA last December, which claimed 78 percent of respondents were afraid to ride in a car using Level 5 autonomy (one with no human controls). While a follow-up questionnaire saw that number drop to 63 percent a few months later, there are still a bevy of other examples showing no marked improvement. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and J.D. Power and Associates, conducted within the last year, have both shown public distrust growing in tandem with the general awareness of AVs since 2015. A similar poll, put on by insurance colossus AIG, showed that 41 percent of the public didn’t even want to share the road with driverless cars.

What’s happening here? Is it simply a matter of bad publicity? While there has been a handful of fatal incidents involving autonomous test vehicles or advanced driving aids, automakers have made no small effort to reassure the public by promoting safety campaigns and explaining their mobility strategies. But only about half the sample said they knew AVs were already being tested on public roads and there was no consensus on who they felt should be at fault when such a vehicle is involved in an accident.

The problem with the Cox study is that, while it shows a clear increase in the consumer opposition of self-driving cars, it doesn’t get into the nitty gritty of why. This author has covered the topic more than most and I think I’m truly beginning to understand the public’s apprehension toward autonomous vehicles. If you’re a movie buff like I am, then you’ve seen 1987’s hyper-violent masterpiece Robocop. The film is a blood-soaked satire of the era in which it was produced but also says something profound about the human condition.

In the movie, Officer Alex Murphy is transformed into the titular character after being gunned down by baddies. As Robocop, he is given incredible abilities and near invulnerability but is tragically stripped of his humanity. More man than machine, Murphy seeks to regain who he once was by tracking down his “killers.” But finds himself at odds with his highly restrictive programing. Interestingly, the film is also set in a dilapidated and futuristic version of Detroit where a large corporation seeks to use the mechanization of this poor man as a way to bolster profits. Robocop is a prototype, a test vehicle for future models that would eventually replace the overburdened flesh-and-bone police force.

If autonomous cars are implemented improperly, we could all end up just like Murphy during a significant portion of our day. Believe it or not, people like being engaged and sometimes giving us a task is beneficial to our mental health. Assuming self-driving vehicles are issued without manual controls, which appears to be the way things are heading, we’re effectively at the mercy of whatever programming automakers decide to give us.

You can even see this in the survey results. Respondents seem more fearful of higher levels of autonomy, with level 5 being the most frightening. Meanwhile, over half of the Cox Automotive sample said they felt “new technology” still made people better drivers.

We know that’s not entirely true. Other studies have shown that advanced driving aids actually degrade your skills and lessen your reaction time, even if they create an overall safer road-going experience. However, it makes people feel better and props up terrible or inattentive motorists by accounting for their shortcomings.

Perception may be more important than reality. Most metrics have road safety improving exponentially as we let more machines take the wheel. I’m of the mind that consumer fears don’t stem from a conviction that self-driving cars will crash or be hacked into by terrorists. It’s the subconscious terror associated with abandoning control and losing a small part of your humanity.

While the self-driving car opens up new opportunities to better ourselves, it also closes the door to personal autonomy and yet another skill set. It’s another step down a path that ultimately ends with us having nothing to do. We’ll be like those people at the end of Wall-E, well-fed slobs with machines to do all of the working and thinking for us. Technology is great and so are self-driving cars, but not at the expense of our own personhood.

Perhaps that scenario is melodramatic, despite not being beyond the realm of possibility. However, we know a few things about the road to autonomy already. Firstly, the system can’t perform faultlessly until all cars are computer operated and networked together — which creates an incentive to take away human controls. Several years ago, I was incredibly skeptical of a future where we couldn’t opt to pilot our own self-driving vehicles. But now I can see the industry gradually heading in that direction, which brings me to my second point. Automakers are spending loads of cash on data centers, vehicle connectivity, and longterm business models that don’t involve widespread ownership of a personal vehicle.

Alright, that’s enough of the scary stuff. I’d also like to issue a reminder that rural living is likely to prohibit any timeline where nobody owns their own car anymore. But you see where this is going and why some people might be a little spooked by the concept of self-driving cars and why that apprehension has only grown as the public has reached a greater understanding of what the technology entails.

It’s also likely that the first people who were aware of AVs were also the people most-likely to be excited by them. Tech heads that are obsessed with Silicon Valley are more apt to endorse products with more microchips and the first to hear about them. But the same isn’t true of average folks who are only just beginning to learn about the complexities associated with educated machines.

We’re curious to see how this will progress as the tech begins to yield fruit. The public has a long way to go before it truly understands autonomous vehicles and what they’ll mean for the future of transportation. Ironically, that might also be true of the automotive and tech industries who seem to be largely fixated on the end result. There’s a chance they’re not taking a close enough look at a the messy interim period where people lose jobs and have to willingly give up some personal agency. But we know, definitively, that more information on the subject has not made the general populace feel any better about it.

[Image: MGM/Orion Pictures]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Mike Beranek Mike Beranek on Aug 22, 2018

    "I’d also like to issue a reminder that rural living is likely to prohibit any timeline where nobody owns their own car anymore." Rural economies are dependent on truck driver salaries, so... Autonomous trucks = no truck drivers = no truck driver salaries = no one can afford to live in rural areas = no one lives in rural areas.

    • Namesakeone Namesakeone on Aug 22, 2018

      And this is one of the motivations for big business to embrace autonomous vehicles. Autonomous trucks = no truck drivers = no truck driver salaries. That will take billions out of corporate payrolls and put billions into the hands of corporate stockholders. They can't wait!

  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Aug 22, 2018

    They are coming because your elected officials have neglected roads and public transportation for decades now. Autonous cars are the cheap fix.

  • JK I grew up with Dodge trucks in the US, and now live in Turin, Italy, the home of Fiat. I don't think Italians view this as an Italian company either. There are constant news articles and protests about how stalantis is moving operations out of Italy. Jeep is strangely popular here though. I think last time I looked at stelantis's numbers, Jeep was the only thing saving them from big big problems.
  • Bd2 Oh yeah, funny how Trumpers (much less the Orange Con, himself) are perfectly willing to throw away the Constitution...
  • Bd2 Geeze, Anal sure likes to spread his drivelA huge problem was Fisher and his wife - who overspent when they were flush with cash and repeatedly did things ad hoc and didn't listen to their employees (who had more experience when it came to auto manufacturing, engineering, etc).
  • Tassos My Colleague Mike B bought one of these (the 300 SEL, same champagne color) new around June 1990. I thought he paid $50k originally but recently he told me it was $62k. At that time my Accord 1990 Coupe LX cost new, all included, $15k. So today the same car means $150k for the S class and $35k-40k for the Accord. So those %0 or 62k , these were NOT worthless, Idiot Joe Biden devalued dollars, so he paid AN ARM AND A LEG. And he babied the car, he really loved it, despite its very weak I6 engine with a mere 177 HP and 188 LBFT, and kept it forever. By the time he asked me to drive it (to take him to the dealer because his worthless POS Buick Rainier "SUV" needed expensive repairs (yes, it was a cheap Buick but he had to shell out thousands), the car needed a lot of suspension work, it drove like an awful clunker. He ended up donating it after 30 years or so. THIS POS is no different, and much older. Its CHEAPSKATE owner should ALSO donate it to charity instead of trying to make a few measly bucks off its CARCASS. Pathetic!
  • RHD The re-paint looks like it was done with a four-inch paintbrush. As far as VWs go, it's a rebadged Seat... which is still kind of a VW, made in Mexico from a Complete Knock-Down kit. 28 years in Mexico being driven like a flogged mule while wearing that ridiculous rear spoiler is a tough life, but it has actually survived... It's unique (to us), weird, funky (very funky), and certainly not worth over five grand plus the headaches of trying to get it across the border and registered at the local DMV.