Most Americans Still Don't Trust Self-Driving Cars, AAA Says

Recent crashes may be to blame, according to AAA.

Americans' distrust of self-driving cars has increased these past few months, according to AAA. The national motor club blames recent crashes involving autonomous cars and vehicles with related technology for the downturn in consumer trust.

In its most recent survey of consumer attitudes toward self-driving cars, AAA found that 73 percent of Americans would be too afraid to ride in one. That's up 63 percent from AAA's last survey, conducted in late 2017. This time around, 63 percent of respondents also said they would feel less safe sharing the road with an autonomous car while walking or riding a bicycle.

The biggest slip in confidence was among Millennials. The percentage of respondents from this generation who said they would not ride in an autonomous vehicle jumped from 49 percent to 64 percent. That was the biggest increase of any age group surveyed, AAA said.

"Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety," Greg Brannon, AAA's automotive engineering director, said in a statement. "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."

Brannon appeared to be referencing the fatal March crash of an Uber self-driving car in Tempe, Arizona. The car struck pedestrian Elaine Herzberg while she was pushing a bicycle across a street at night. Multiple recent crashes involving cars equipped with Tesla's Autopilot system may also negatively color public opinion. Autopilot does not enable autonomous driving, but that is often confused in media reports because of the name, and because of the way the system allows the car to make control inputs.

Both consumers and the media have conflated Autopilot and other driver-assist systems with fully-autonomous driving, and that must be addressed by creating better nomenclature for the technology, AAA believes.

"There are sometimes dozens of different marketing names for today's safety systems," Brannon said. "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." AAA also wants stricter rules for self-driving car testing.

"To ease fears, there must be safeguards in place to protect vehicle occupants and the motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians with whom they share the road," Megan Foster, AAA's director of federal affairs, said. AAA has begun working with autonomous-driving startup Torc Robotics to develop safety criteria for self-driving cars. But as long as companies test what is still an unperfected technology on public roads, accidents will likely occur, and continue sapping public confidence in autonomous cars.