Americans still don't trust self-driving cars, poll finds

A Waymo self-driving car.
A Waymo self-driving car.PHOTO: REUTERS

DETROIT/NEW YORK • Half of American adults think automated vehicles are more dangerous than traditional vehicles operated by people, while nearly two-thirds said they would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle, according to a new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll.

The poll results outline the challenges that face car-and truck-makers, delivery companies, technology companies and ride services operators such as Uber Technologies and Lyft. All are ploughing capital into developing self-driving vehicles and related hardware. Developers of the technology are making progress, but polls indicate the industry's efforts to build public trust and commercial demand lag behind.

The findings are similar to those in a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year. They are consistent with results in surveys by Pew Research Centre, the American Automobile Association and others. In March last year, after the Reuters/Ipsos poll, an Uber vehicle operating in self-driving mode struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona.

Relatively few American residents have seen or ridden in a self-driving vehicle and experts said suspicion of unknown technology can give way to acceptance once it becomes more familiar.

"People are comfortable with things they know," said investor Chris Thomas, co-founder of Fontinalis Partners and Detroit Mobility Lab. "When everybody understands the game-changing attributes of automated vehicles, how they can give you back all that time to read or work or sleep, they will start to ask about the value of that recaptured time."

For companies investing in autonomous vehicles, public mistrust and the unwillingness to pay for self-driving systems are an increasingly urgent problem.

But widespread deployment of fully self-driving vehicles is some years away, industry officials and experts said. Alphabet Inc's Waymo unit has deployed a small fleet of self-driving vans to provide rides for customers in Arizona and other companies have self-driving vehicles on public streets in test fleets.


"At the moment, those responses are largely based on zero knowledge and zero experience, so it's mostly a visceral reaction to something they read about, like the Uber crash in Arizona," said Professor Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of several books on future transportation.

Autonomous vehicle companies have been trying for more than two years to get the United States Congress to enact legislation that would give a regulatory green light to self-driving cars. So far, opposition has bottled up the industry-friendly bills. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, has yet to act on proposals to exempt autonomous vehicles from conventional vehicle safety standards.

Two-thirds of survey respondents said self-driving cars should be held to higher government safety standards than traditional vehicles driven by humans.

"Somebody needs to be held accountable," said survey respondent Carla Ross, 62, a teacher from Norfolk, Virginia. "Those cars shouldn't even go on the road until they can guarantee a certain percentage of safety."

The challenges of turning over critical safety systems to robots are now a central issue in debate over how regulators should respond to a pair of deadly crashes involving Boeing 737 MAX airliners.

"If there's one (airplane) crash a year, it creates huge backlash - and airplanes are far, far safer than cars," said Prof Sperling.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll surveyed 2,222 people online in English across the United States and it has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of 2 per cent.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2019, with the headline 'Americans still don't trust self-driving cars, poll finds'. Print Edition | Subscribe