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Autonomous Driving: Consumer Concerns and Fears Persist

A Waymo self-driving vehicle | Photo: Waymo
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Daniel Rufiange
22 percent of respondents in a new study believe that models equipped with some autonomous features can drive themselves

•    A new AAA study shows that consumers remain concerned about automated driving technologies.

•    68 percent of respondents said they fear autonomous driving systems.

•    The survey also illustrates how little is known about the systems and their capabilities and limitations.

Four years ago, a study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) showed that self-driving vehicles were of concern to a significant percentage - 71 percent - of motorists. 

Four years later, another AAA survey shows that the situation hasn’t changed much. Concerns are still very high. A majority of respondents say they are downright afraid of the technology. That 68 percent represents an 13 percent increase from last year.

“We were not expecting such a dramatic decline in trust from previous years,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive research at AAA. “Although with the number of high-profile crashes that have occurred from over-reliance on current vehicle technologies, this isn’t entirely surprising.”

The survey also shows that many people are unaware of how the different levels of autonomous-drive capabilities are determined. 

A GM Cruise self-driving vehicle
A GM Cruise self-driving vehicle | Photo: General Motors

Note that there are currently no fully autonomous driving vehicles (Level 5) available to the general public. But 22 percent of those surveyed believe that cars with advanced driver assistance systems (Level 2), which have limited capabilities such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist, are capable of fully autonomous driving.

Given that mistaken belief, it’s no surprise some people are spooked by stories of accidents involving partially self-driving vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the equivalent of Transport Canada, has investigated several fatal crashes involving Tesla cars in which Autopilot or the full self-driving system may have been involved.

Last month, the NHTSA announced the recall of 362,758 Tesla cars equipped with the more advanced beta version of the brand's autonomous driving system after an investigation determined that the system had flaws. 

Tesla Model 3 - Interior
Tesla Model 3 - Interior | Photo: Tesla

Tesla will address these issues, but it continues to claim that its autonomous driving system-equipped vehicles are five times less involved in airbag deployment crashes than the U.S. average. 

Such numbers make a strong case for these systems. 

The problem may not be the technology itself, but the behavior of drivers behind the wheel, regardless of the vehicle brand. 

Brannon explained that for its part, AAA “seeks to partner with automakers to create greater consistency across the industry. Together, we can help consumers understand the type of technology their vehicle has along with how, when and where to use these systems, which will ultimately build trust in the vehicles of the future.”

The only fully autonomous vehicles currently in use are operated by ride-sharing and delivery services, such as those run by Cruise and Waymo, which operate in clearly defined areas in certain cities and are monitored by a central control office.

Waymo - Autonomous driving
Waymo - Autonomous driving | Photo: Waymo

In January, Waymo reported that its vehicles had logged more than 1 million miles of unmanned driving, with 18 minor collisions and two major accidents (both attributable to another vehicle).

Despite concerns about fully autonomous driving models, AAA said 60 percent of drivers "definitely" or "probably" want their next vehicle to have driver assistance.

Daniel Rufiange
Daniel Rufiange
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 75 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 250 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists