IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Americans Remain Leery of Driverless Cars, Surveys Say

New surveys from AAA and the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety point to lukewarm consumer confidence in autonomous vehicles, while new research from the Urbanism Next Center suggest AVs could reduce the need for parking.

Americans remain skeptical of autonomous vehicle technologies. Some 68 percent of drivers surveyed by AAA said they were “afraid” of AVs, compared to 55 percent last year.

The increase is largely attributed to high-profile incidents involving accidents affiliated with autonomous vehicle technologies or driver assistance features like Autopilot used by Tesla.

“I think every time that happens, it sets the industry back quite a bit. Those fears feed into a more general fear of ‘automated technologies.’ And that’s why it’s important to get these driver assistance systems right, so people can become more comfortable with more automation going forward,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive research for AAA.

The annual survey found that drivers are not entirely opposed to AV technologies, and have shown an openness to wanting driver assistance features in their next car. However, there is still a heightened level of distrust of full autonomy. Even low-speed AVs — like small electric shuttles and sidewalk bots — are not garnering wholesale support.

“You expect near 100 percent of people would be comfortable. But that’s just not the truth. In fact, when you ask people, close to 50 percent of the people are uncomfortable with [low-speed AV shuttles] too,” said Brannon. “It really speaks, generally, I think, to a lack of trust in technology.”

The AAA poll coincides with a new public opinion poll conducted by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which found strong majorities of drivers from all age groups “are concerned about sharing the roads with driverless cars,” according to the report. The concerns are not just related to the vehicles’ highway safety, but cybersecurity safety as well. And some 64 percent of respondents want to see “minimum government safety requirements.”

“Autonomous vehicles have been touted by members of the industry as a solution to reduce crashes, fatalities and injuries, and increase mobility. However, as our poll shows, Americans have deep concerns about sharing the roads with them, and for good reason,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA) recently released its policy recommendations to Congress, to take steps to advance the use of AVs, calling for an expansion of AV testing, federal rule-making by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), expanding access by not requiring a driver's license to be a passenger in an AV, among other requests.

Jeff Farrah, executive director for AVIA, took issue with some of the language in the survey, calling attention to a lack of understanding by the public about the distinctions between autonomous and driver-assistance technologies.

“Given this huge problem of consumer conflation and unequal exposure to AVs, it’s hard to accurately gauge nationwide consumer opinion,” said Farrah. “The AV industry is dedicated to clearly delineating between driver-assist and autonomous vehicles.”

AVIA called attention to a survey buy Motional, an autonomous technology provider, which found two-thirds of respondents “comfortable with the safety of AV technology.” While seven in 10 Gen Z respondents reported “they would feel comfortable as a cyclist or pedestrian in a city with AVs, or as a passenger in an AV.”

“The AV industry finds that when consumers witness the technology up close and in person, they see and understand the many benefits of AVs,” said Farrah.

Brannon, from AAA, stressed the need for rigorous testing of AVs in order to build consumer confidence in the technology.

“We really need to ensure that the technologies that are being deployed in consumer available vehicles today are done safely and have the proper testing regimes,” said Brannon from AAA.

“We’re very careful of fully automated technologies, even in a test setting, or pilot setting, because — as we’re seeing with the survey data — any issues that occur are likely to set back consumer perception to a great extent,” he added. “We just need to be very cautious going forward.”

Looking forward, if AVs do gain adoption and become a scalable piece of the urban transportation system, they could lead to a reduced need for parking. A study by the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon found AVs could conservatively result in a 20 percent reduction in parking demand, easing the pathway for development and more affordable housing in some of the most high-priced markets in the country.

“If AVs do reduce parking demand — and again, how much is a big if — then yes, this should be part of conversations as people think of future parking requirements,” said Nico Larco, one of the authors of the report, and director of the Urbanism Next Center. “That said, I think there are a lot of forces that could be reducing parking supply requirements – shared mobility broadly, for instance ... and the fact that we generally over-supply as is.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include statements from the AVIA.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.