Survey finds public slow to accept self-driving vehicles
March 8, 2017 12:00 AM
An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion sits at a redlight on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill.
By Ed Blazina / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It may be common to see Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle or Strip District, but that doesn’t mean other motorists are comfortable in sharing the road with them.
In fact, 75 percent of drivers in a national AAA survey released Tuesday said they are afraid of the prospect of self-driving vehicles.
Experts say that isn’t surprising because the technology still is being perfected and there is plenty to time to build public confidence — any major changeover to self-driving vehicles is more than a decade away.
The AAA survey found drivers like the idea of incremental introduction of technology — 59 percent want some autonomous features in their next vehicle — but they aren’t ready for vehicles to do all of the work. About 54 percent of drivers said they would feel less safe sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle — 58 percent of women and 49 percent of men.
Not surprisingly, the numbers also show baby boomers (60 percent) feel less safe than tech-savvy millennials (41 percent).
“I’m not surprised,” said Chris Hendrickson, professor emeritus in civil engineering and director of the Traffic21 Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. “Autonomous vehicles aren’t that common yet. It’s a disruptive technology until people get used to it.”
The survey results should serve of a reminder to officials that more public education is needed as technology is developed, said Roger Cohen, policy director at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. He was co-chaired of a committee that recommended policies to control the development of self-driving vehicles.
Self-driving vehicles are expected to have a major, positive effect on traffic deaths, which jumped 14 percent last year after a decade of decline. But Mr. Cohen said the state must continue rigorous safety standards as testing of self-driving vehicles continues and then educate the public once the technology is perfected.
“The responsibility is on us to manage this testing process and make sure these vehicles aren’t rolled out before they’re ready. We’re not there yet,” he said. “This survey imposes on us the responsibility to be as a transparent and forthcoming as possible as the testing moves forward.”
Raj Rajkumar, co-director of CMU’s General Motors Connected and Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Laboratory who has been developing self-driving technology for more than 20 years, said the technology is still in its infancy. Failures such as the fatal crash of a fully automated Tesla last year and recent reports of Uber vehicles running red lights in San Francisco slow down public acceptance, he said.
“People see that and say the technology is not quite mature yet,” he said.
Mr. Rajkumar said it took five to 10 years for the public to accept relatively simple technology advancements such as cruise control when it was introduced in the late 1980s. The technology of self-driving vehicles, which can communicate with each other and a central transportation computer system to keep passengers safe, is far more complicated, he said.
“The technology has to mature. It’s going to take a longer time to shake things out and get public acceptance,” he said.
Studies regularly find the public is a little slow to accept technology changes in transportation, said Carryl Baldwin, an associate professor and director of Human Factors and Applied Cognition at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
“One of the things we see is people tend to be a little skeptical,” Ms. Baldwin said. “Right now, they can’t talk to their friends or family about their experience because they haven’t done it yet. I think [acceptance] will happen fairly quickly once more people become familiar with the technology.”
The experts all said that despite Ford’s push to have self-driving vehicles on the road by 2021, they don’t expect a huge impact for more than a decade. If only self-driving vehicles were sold beginning today, it is estimated it would take more than 20 years to replace the 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads.
In the meantime, AAA said its goal is to educate the public about the benefits of self-driving vehicles.
“The education part of it — we need to impress upon the public the need for [self-driving vehicles] for safety,” said Herman Jenkins, director of public affairs for AAA’s East Central Region in Pittsburgh. “Acceptance will come gradually. It will come in pieces.”
Ed Blazina: email@example.com or 412-263-1470.
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.