Car Culture: Many Americans fear self-driving cars

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Drivers are frightened by the prospect of self-driving cars.

Insurance giant AAA this month released a survey that found three-quarters of drivers are afraid to ride in an autonomous car. Another survey from Canadian software company Klashwerks found that 18 percent of American drivers are “terrified” of self-driving cars, and 24.8 percent would not ride in one.

AAA adds that only 10 percent of its survey respondents report that they’d actually feel safer sharing the roads with driverless vehicles, while 54 percent feel less safe. Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations, says, “While U.S. drivers are eager to buy vehicles equipped with autonomous technology, they continue to fear a fully self-driving vehicle.”

The AAA concluded from its survey that Americans are not ready to give up complete control of cars. “U.S. drivers may experience the driver-assistance technologies in their cars today and feel they don’t work consistently enough to replace a human driver — and they’re correct,” continued Brannon.

The surveys show some distinctions, the most obvious that drivers in their early 30s and younger are far more likely to desire autonomous cars, at 70 percent, than baby boomers, at 51 percent, in the AAA survey. Klashwerks data show just 26.3 percent of older people would ride in an autonomous car, compared to the 38.2 percent average of all drivers.

Two researchers from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, released a follow-up report last May of a two-year study of driver preferences in autonomous cars. It showed 95 percent of drivers want a self-driving car with steering wheel, accelerator and brake controls to be able to take complete control.

An earlier study by the institute that included Australian and U.K. drivers showed drivers have “high levels of concern about riding in self-driving vehicles, security issues related to self-driving vehicles, and self-driving vehicle not performing as well as actual drivers.” But it also concluded that drivers “generally desire self-driving vehicle technology when it becomes available.”

In 2015, a survey from the nonprofit National Safety Council and the University of Iowa concluded that on average, about half of American drivers today who have had the chance to experience some of the advanced technology from connected cars reject it, and that includes features such as forward collision warnings, automatic braking, cross-traffic alerts, lane-change assist and other sensor-driven features.

Why are they afraid?

To me, the surveys show that people do not trust computers to drive cars, while major automakers like Ford and Volvo, as well as Tesla, Google and Uber are setting a fast pace to begin putting self-driving cars on some roads by 2021.

Two of the concerns from drivers surveyed show me that we’re not ready to give up total control of our cars. Yet, data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Toyota show that there’s still a several-second lag time between when an autonomous car asks for human intervention, and when the human driver takes over.

There’s also the fear demonstrated in 2015 by “white hat” hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, who caused a Jeep to stop on a St. Louis highway by hacking into its computer from the internet. Jeep fixed the software, yet experts believe the issue will never be 100 percent solved.

It seems to me that our fear of autonomous cars is that there are no humans watching out or able to react quickly. We fear artificial intelligence. But the benefits of the smart sensor equipment on the our cars also seems to be something we want — namely a reduction in the 35,000 deaths per year on U.S. highways.