Self-Driving Cars: Despite Progress, Americans Trust Them Even Less

Unsplash / Evgeny Tchebotarev

Self-driving cars have plenty of benefits — but the American public still doesn’t trust them. A report from the American Automobile Association released Tuesday shows that 73 percent of drivers would be too afraid to ride in a self-driving car, a marked jump from the 63 percent reported late last year, with millennial distrust jumping from 49 percent to 64 percent over the same period.

The results of the survey come despite autonomous-vehicle makers reporting strong signs of progress. Waymo, which started life as Google’s self-driving car project, announced in March that it’s accumulated over 5 billion miles in virtual driving and 5 million miles in real-world driving, after opening its autonomous minivan service to the public last year. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who said in February he’s “pretty excited about how much progress we’re making on the neural net front,” has predicted autonomous driving for existing vehicles could surface in a matter of months. Companies like Aurora are predicting their systems could hit the markets in 2021.

Autonomous driving has also made headlines for less positive reasons. In March, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg became the first person to be killed by an autonomous car on public roads, after an autonomous Uber failed to stop in Tempe, Arizona. Documents that surfaced in the wake of the crash showed Uber’s vehicles struggled on the road prior to the incident. Tesla has also come under the spotlight after 38-year-old Apple software engineer Wei “Walter” Huang died in March while using the semi-autonomous Autopilot mode with his Model X.

“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,” Megan Foster, AAA’s director of federal affairs, said in a statement. “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.”

Ahead of Tesla’s planned software update launch for existing cars, and Jaguar’s plans to test the I-Pace with Waymo later this year, automakers will have to grapple with a big problem that experts have been predicting.

“The fundamental problem that the automotive industry would have to solve is the world is perfectly happy killing half a million people on the roads every year,” Shashi Verma, chief technology officer for Transport for London, said at a November conference. “Nobody bats an eyelid, it’s not on the front page of any newspaper. The first robot that kills a person will be a news story.”

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