Survey: 3 out of 4 Americans say driverless cars 'not ready for primetime'
A poll conducted by PAVE shows Americans are pessimistic about self-driving cars, and it's probably because they just don't understand them.
Antuan GoodwinReviews Editor / Cars
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According to a survey of 1,200 adults from across the United States conducted by the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education earlier this year, "Nearly three in four Americans say autonomous vehicles are not ready for primetime," with 48% of the surveyed saying they'd never get in a self-driving taxi. Possible causes for this hesitance are unfamiliarity with the technology and confusion over the definition of a "driverless car."
PAVE is a coalition of industry, nonprofit and academic institutions that aim to educate the public and policymakers about automated vehicles and the technology that powers them. Its survey of 1,200 Americans took place between Feb. 27 and March 5, and the official results were released this week. Of those 1,200 polled, additional questions were given to the 678 people that reported owning cars with advanced driver assistance systems.
According to PAVE, the survey results show that self-driving vehicle technologies and the automakers and developers working on them face "serious perception challenges." In addition to seeing driverless cars as "not ready for primetime," only 34% of the surveyed agree that "the advantages of AVs outweigh any potential disadvantages."
You might be tempted to point the finger at what PAVE calls "specific instances of bad publicity around automated driving," but that doesn't appear to be the culprit. The organization notes that most of the surveyed reported knowing "nothing at all" or only "a little" about the fatal 2018 Uber-Tempe crash or the recent Telsa Autopilot-related crashes. The problem, it seems, is that people don't trust the tech because they simply don't understand it.
Generally, the less confident the surveyed were in their knowledge about AVs, the more likely they were to be in the "would never get in a taxi or ride-share vehicle that was being driven autonomously" group. Interestingly, 60% of the polled stated that they would have greater trust in AVs if they "understood better how the technology works," according to the study, and 58% would have great trust if they "had a chance to experience an AV ride" firsthand. With the technology still in early days and only 29 states with laws on the books that potentially allow self-driving testing, it could be a while before they get their turn. It's no surprise that PAVE thinks educating the public about AVs is the key to closing that gap.
On the whole, the polled seemed more keen on driver-aid systems that support a human driver who always has full control. In this same vein, those drivers who reported owning vehicles equipped with ADAS features -- such as active parking assist, head-up display or lane-keeping assist -- responded generally more positively to questions about AVs and ADAS technologies. 82% of these drivers claimed a good understanding of how their safety tech worked, with 75% expressing enthusiasm for the new features in their next vehicle.
However, there is the potential for overconfidence on the part of drivers who think they know a self-driving car when they see one. PAVE shared the very troubling finding that 19% of respondents believe it's possible to "own a completely driverless vehicle today" and 26% answering they're "not sure." Owners of vehicles with more advanced features -- such as remote parking or automatic emergency braking -- were more likely to incorrectly believe that AVs are currently on sale.
Additionally, PAVE seems to think that some drivers may be misreporting their ADAS adoption or simply not actually knowing what features their cars have, stating that "38% of respondents reported their vehicle has adaptive cruise control, even though just 12% of new vehicles sold in 2018 were equipped with the feature, according to AAA." Interestingly, 39% of respondents were "confused by all the different names of advanced safety features." New and upcoming hands-off Level 2 automated systems -- such as Cadillac's Super Cruise -- have the potential to further confuse drivers by appearing to the untrained eye to be self-driving cars. Again, the organization warns that clearer messaging and driver education are needed. (Note: GM does not market Super Cruise as an autonomous system.)
PAVE also surveyed an additional 200 adults with disabilities or mobility issues and found that, overall, they were slightly more positive about AVs than the general public. The group was more likely to agree that the advantages of the tech outweigh any potential disadvantages, reported a slightly higher understanding of self-driving cars and how they work and were more likely to be early adopters of AVs than than the larger group. This makes sense: Automakers such as Toyota have been preaching the benefits of driverless cars and robotics tech for the disabled and elderly for years. Despite all of this, the subset was still fairly cautious overall.
Americans might also be won over by a slower, more careful adoption of the tech, with 25% surveyed agreeing they would "trust AVs more if they only traveled at less than 25 mph" (and 51% who "would trust AVs more if, at first, they were used to move cargo, not humans"). People also seemed to prefer the term "self-driving car" more than "autonomous vehicle" or "driverless car." Nomenclature, it seems, also matters.