Consumer Trust in Self-Driving Car Technology Has Made a Sudden U-Turn

Consumer trust in self-driving cars has eroded following recent high-profile incidents involving autonomous vehicle technology, including a fatal Uber crash in March, according to a AAA survey released Tuesday.

Fears about autonomous vehicles appeared to be easing, with 63% of U.S. drivers reporting in December they would be too afraid to ride in a driverless vehicle, a drop from 78% in early 2017. But attitudes in the past four months have since reversed.

The latest AAA survey—conducted in April just a few weeks after an Uber autonomous test vehicle hit and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Ariz.—found 73% of U.S. drivers would be be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. Some 20% U.S. drivers said they would trust a self-driving vehicle and 7% responded “unsure.”

The fatal crash prompted Uber to halt its autonomous vehicle operations in Tempe, as well as in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto.

Almost two-thirds, or 63%, of U.S. adults reported they would feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle while walking or riding a bicycle, according to the April AAA survey of more than 1,000 adults living the continental U.S.

“Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “Our results show that any incident involving an autonomous vehicle is likely to shake consumer trust, which is a critical component to the widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles.”

Millennial drivers appear to be the most rattled by recent incidents, with 64% saying they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 49% at the end of 2017. This represents the largest increase of any generation surveyed, AAA said.

AAA’s view is that trust in autonomous vehicle technology will continue to ebb and flow in line with high-profile accidents. In short: fears are inevitable. But the organization is also pushing for safeguards or regulations that protect occupants of self-driving vehicles as well as other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians with whom they share the road, according to Megan Foster, AAA’s director of federal affairs.

In order to promote greater understanding, AAA wants automakers and tech companies to adopt a common nomenclature and classification system for automated systems in vehicles.

“There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today’s safety systems,” Brannon said in a statement. “Learning how to operate a vehicle equipped with semi-autonomous technology is challenging enough without having to decipher the equipment list and corresponding level of autonomy.”

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