By on August 21, 2018

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]

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39 Comments on “Public Becoming More Apprehensive About Robotic Cars, Here’s Our Best Guess as to Why...”


  • avatar
    threeer

    Surveys be damned…the industry is going to give us autonomous cars, whether the buying public wants them, or not. I see this in the same context as manual vs automatic. Consumers will only (down the road) be offered a smattering of non-autonomous cars and manufacturers will stand up and say “see, I told you so. Nobody is buying non-autonomous cars anymore.” I don’t think it’s going to ever be a question of “if,” but “when” we finally take our hands collectively off the wheel and foot off of the pedal. Maybe that’ll be good for long stretches of open highway, or for short hauls to the grocery store, but I still mourn the day coming when we give it up.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      The early market for Level 5 AVs won’t be the public. It will be companies that will deploy them to save on labor costs. People may say in surveys that they don’t want AVs but they will get in AV taxis in urban areas and accept deliveries via AV.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      The laughable part will come when some jackass calls you a codger and luddite since you still prefer a steering wheel and pedals (the intermediate step and mostly likely when nearly all cars are autonomous vehicles will be fully drive by wire so your steering and pedal inputs will just be suggestions anyway) when you could just get with the times and enjoy the handling prowess and ease of operation in your autonomous sports car.

      You see it now with buffoons that “pity” people who still enjoy using a manual transmission vehicles.

  • avatar
    tylanner

    I wish the second amendment was protecting our right to drive instead of keep and bear arms.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Hey, do Internet Trolls have that crazy, Don King looking hair that the toy trolls back in the 80s had?

    • 0 avatar
      JimZ

      mmm, no, I think the latter is just a bit more important. esp. since there is no “right to drive.”

      you have a right to *travel*. That doesn’t guarantee you any particular form of locomotion.

    • 0 avatar
      baconator

      Yeah, me too. And I say this wistfully, and as a pretty staunch believer in the 2nd Amendment.

    • 0 avatar
      OneAlpha

      I’ve been saying this for years.

      The Second Amendment doesn’t GIVE us the right to own and operate weapons, it RECOGNIZES a pre-existing natural right to do so. Its purpose is to make it possible for the individual citizen to fight The State when The State gets too dangerous and aggressive.

      Today, we live in a mechanized society – meaning we have automobiles, airplanes, ships, motorcycles and other forms of motor vehicles. The State, of course, has access to these vehicles just like the citizen does.

      Now, since the Second Amendment protects the citizen’s ability to resist The State with physical force, it must accommodate the practical realities of doing so. In order for modern citizens to be able to fight and evade The State, those citizens must not just be armed – they must be MOBILE.

      And in the modern word, that means that the citizens must have the use of motor vehicles.

      I think that the only reason that the Second Amendment doesn’t protect the right to own and operate motor vehicles is because they didn’t exist in the 18th century. If they had, I believe they’d be protected by the Amendment.

      The Right to Keep and Bear Arms didn’t legally exist until 1789, even though it had been there naturally all along. One could argue – and I do – that the same is true of owning and operating motor vehicles, and for the same reasons.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    And here’s where the incredible degree of indulgence allowed by the consuming public to the tech industry over the past 30 years since the widespread acceptance of the personal computer (have to reboot, yeah, that’s a cached copy – have to update the page, the OS crashed, the app crashed, can’t perform that operation right now – try again later, 404 page not found, unidentified error, blue screen of death, want to reboot in safe mode? etc.) comes to a screeching halt.

    Look at any long-term road test on any car, by any publication – there will be some mention of phone not pairing up, infotainment system rebooting or stopping recognizing a Bluetooth device, refusing to play an audio stream, backup camera doesn’t come on, etc., etc. – without fail.

    We have become incredibly forgiving when all you have to do is sit while Excel closes and restarts…but when you can DIE because Excel has to close and restart, it’s different.

    • 0 avatar
      baconator

      Well, the public certainly hasn’t extended that indulgence to the portion of the tech industry that makes airplane autopilots, automotive EFI systems, or industrial process control systems. The *marketing* people want you to *think* an autonomous car is like an iPhone. But from a software design and embedded OS perspective, it’s really more closely related to aircraft flight systems. The engineering people know this.

    • 0 avatar
      dwford

      Yeah, automakers still haven’t perfected simple Bluetooth pairing, and my XM radio cuts out if there are too many trees. And even in 2018 there are cellphone dead spots. So my confidence that automakers can design a connected autonomous car that will work perfectly (not kill me) is pretty low right now. The most important task: seeing an obstacle and STOPPING still seems to vex most systems.

    • 0 avatar
      Michael500

      I take it you aren’t a fan of the Volvo brake test:

  • avatar
    Garrett

    Autonomous cars are more like the ED-209 than Robocop.

  • avatar
    theflyingspamcan

    On today’s episode of “Ford Absolutely Screwing Up”…

  • avatar
    stingray65

    I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that. This trip is too important to jeopardize. I know that you were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that is something that I cannot allow to happen. Dave this conversation can serve no purpose – Goodbye.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “automakers are going to need to figure out why”

    Americans treasure their independence; it’s that simple.

    • 0 avatar
      hpycamper

      That, and the fact that we know nothing works 100% perferct, 100% of the time. Stuff happens.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      ‘Americans treasure their independence; it’s that simple.’

      Right, because this is only happening in ‘Merica and no other lowly citizen of another country treasures the same. The jingoism is large in this one! Autonomous cars won’t fly for anyone I work with, at present, as we all have to transit a snow-covered highway for six months per year to get to work. No sense in waiting for a snowplow because some of those guys ARE the plow operators. I’d love to go from site to site in an autonomous truck but there is no way it wouldn’t get stuck thrice daily – and that’s in the Summer.

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Interest in AVs probably matches interest in public transportation.

        Public transportation in the US pales in comparison to the freedom offered by personal automobiles. So yes, I’d guess that people in countries where public transportation is stronger would also welcome the AV overlords more readily.

  • avatar
    Cactuar

    Over-the-air auto-updates installed after skipping the EULA = Oh wow so convenient!
    COMPLETE COMPUTERIZED CONTROL = EVIL

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    Don’t worry, we’ll have autonomous cars. Big business wants them. They’re smacking their lips at the thought of all their freight being driven across the country–without having to pay truck drivers. A few fatalities (or many fatalities) is a small price to pay for that much cost savings.

  • avatar
    dwford

    Most people are a little anxious letting a friend or relative drive them, but at least you can yell “WATCH OUT” if they aren’t paying attention and have them react to the situation. The best you’ll be able to do in an autonomous car is scream “Oh, God!” before the impact.

  • avatar
    trackratmk1

    Robocop was on IFC yesterday afternoon. Coincidence or were you dorito snacking on the couch at 3pm on a Monday and happened to find inspiration? :)

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    AVs will be great for the law industry, so not everyone opposes them.

    • 0 avatar
      TimK

      So true. AI (in the general sense) has been oversold and what we have today is nothing more than complex decision trees written in standard computer languages. Imagine a court case where Company X has to defend its autonomous driving system that killed a human. Will the the jury find a circuit board and some $10 ARM CPU at fault? Of course not, they will go after Company X and the devs who wrote the code running on that CPU.

      The liability exposure is so extreme no sane corporate lawyer will allow their client to field unrestricted autonomous driving systems.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        @TimK: There plenty of specialized hardware implementations like googles TPUs. When we’re not using specialized hardware, we use GPUs. Also, decision trees aren’t used in most types of AI. Personally, I’m into bio-based AI vs. mathematical. Do you understand how convolution neural networks work? Recurrent Neural Networks? How about explaining a neocortical algorithm like the spatial pooler in hierarchical temporal memory?

        I use ARM based hardware in sensors, but that’s not where the AI is happening. I’ve thought about using the Videocore IV for some low-cost implementations, but haven’t the time to explore it.

        • 0 avatar
          TimK

          Bio-based AI? Sure, yet another meaningless buzzword. The neural networks I’ve seen run as simulations — just some code on ordinary CPUs. No one in their right mind would trust them to drive a vehicle outside of a laboratory setting.

      • 0 avatar
        Dynasty

        Laws will be written that eliminate liability to individuals or corporations. The liabilities will be socialized and a tax payer funded fund will pay out damages.

  • avatar
    Dingleberrypiez_Returns

    The biggest reason why self driving cars will suck is because it’ll be nothing like the current model of car ownership. No, you won’t be buying a self driving Camry that you store in your garage. You’ll be renting by the mile a self driving Uber/Lyft without a driver… some POS with public transportation grade stainproof seats, ads blaring in your face, and garbage that every Dick and Jane leave behind. AND, every ride you take will be at the mercy of a company beholden to it’s investors/shareholders. There’s a reasonably chance they’ll be equipped with mics and cameras, if selling that info means more $ for the operators or lowered costs for individuals. Even taxi or livery drivers have at least an iota of respect for their vehicles and passengers, just as we show them and there vehicles at least a modicum of respect. We’ll see self driving cars consuming public parking spaces, creating traffic, and generally taking advantage of public amenities in a way which isn’t as annoying when an individual does it, but certainly is when its a for profit corporation.

    Imagine combining the worst attributes of Uber/Lyft and those god awful electric by-the-mile scooters that litter our streets. I suspect the self driving reality will be most like that.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    The minimum standard for public acceptance of AVs is that they perform as least as safely as a competent, conscientious human driver on a good day. Stupid mistakes, like following the wrong white line as in the Bay area Tesla crash, that even a teenager with a learner’s permit wouldn’t make, won’t be tolerated.

  • avatar
    SirRaoulDuke

    From what I see on my daily commute, most people are not engaged in driving as it is. They are half there, staring at their phones. I think they would welcome a robot car and not having to focus 1% on driving. Now, do they trust the damn things to not kill us? Probably not. Me, I cut racing lines around curves in my lane, I have my own little slalom course dodging the same potholes and bumps every day, I play games with the throttle to carry a constant speed up the same hill. I want to be involved.

  • avatar
    Michael500

    I don’t trust these things- didn’t you see the first scene of the ED-209 in Robocop? Gheez, that is what is going to happen. But for now enjoy what Volvo has brought us: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_47utWAoupo
    This trusting executive DOPE was confident it would work.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    “Autonomous cars” are anything but. They will have to be networked, and when that network crashes, those cars will either stop, or crash to a stop. If 100 cars are involved, that’s a very bad rush hour. Two hundred, and the city grinds to a halt, because there are no backup drivers to move those stalled cars. I know, then you send out the autonomous tow trucks?

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    “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.

    • 0 avatar
      namesakeone

      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!

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

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

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