The latest edition of AAA’s annual autonomous vehicle sentiment survey is out, and folks, people are not happy about these things. According to the survey, trust in autonomous cars is down, fear is up, and advanced driver assistance systems are still confusing. Time to break down the numbers and discuss what might be at play here.
Let’s start with the headline figure: 68 percent of Americans who responded to the survey say they are afraid of fully-autonomous cars, up 13 percent year-over-year. Afraid, huh?
In addition, the number of respondents who said they trust autonomous vehicles fell from 15 percent to 9 percent year-over-year. Twenty-three percent of respondents remain unsure, down seven percent year-over-year. Add it all up, and the statistics suggest that Americans are cooling to the concept of “self-driving cars,” such as they are.
Their fears aren’t unfounded. The current technology is less than stellar, with several high-profile incidents involving autonomous vehicles occurring over the past year. From repeated instances of Cruise self-driving vehicles blocking roads in San Francisco, to a crash at an unprotected left turn (normally referred to by drivers as a left turn), to Waymo topping NHTSA’s list for autonomous vehicle crashes, it hasn’t been a great year or so for autonomous vehicles.
While the failings of existing technologies don’t necessarily foreshadow future technologies, reports of autonomous vehicles malfunctioning may put a damper on how palatable autonomous vehicles are. I can’t blame anyone for reading reports of Cruise cars holding up traffic and deciding autonomous vehicles aren’t for them. I’d be properly annoyed if the path to my destination was completely obstructed by autonomous reworked Chevrolet Bolts.
That’s on the “autonomous test car” side. Things are equally not-great on the consumer tech side.
While it also hasn’t been a great year for misleadingly-named Level 2 advanced driver assistance systems, that doesn’t tell the whole story about ADAS. According to the AAA survey, 22 percent of respondents believe that systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, and Volvo’s Pilot Assist can make a car drive itself when the exact opposite is the case. The past 12 months have been shaky for some of these driver assistance systems, with Tesla’s FSD Beta under federal investigation by the Department of Justice and under recall, and a NHTSA report finding that both Tesla and Honda’s advanced driver assistance systems were active in a considerable number of crashes.
However, fears and skepticism towards autonomy aren’t mirrored by a decreased desire for advanced driver assistance features. Six out of 10 survey respondents reportedly want SAE Level 2 driver assistance in their next vehicle, which seems unusual given how those same respondents are cooling to autonomous vehicles. If the current tech is confusing crap, which most of it is, why desire it?
Well, some of the systems out there like GM’s Super Cruise work well in slower highway traffic and feature great eye-tracking and smooth hand-offs that help ensure monitoring is done in a safe manner. If options are out there to reduce fatigue and improve focus on monotonous freeway stretches, it shouldn’t be surprising that consumers desire them.
While it’s too soon to say for sure if the tide is turning against self-driving vehicles, this year’s AAA report paints a dismaying picture. It’s possible that some people are realizing that the bar for safe autonomous driving is incredibly high and that it will take years of work to reach that goal, so they aren’t willing to trust autonomous vehicles just yet. It’s equally likely that some people just never will trust self-driving cars.
Either way, fear is on the rise.
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