75% of U.S. Drivers Fear Self-Driving Cars, But It's an Easy Fear to Get Over

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Illustration: iStockphoto

Trust in self-driving cars remains a big stumbling block for U.S. drivers surveyed by the American Automobile Association. But the same AAA survey and other past studies suggest that drivers can quickly overcome those trust issues once they get a chance to experience a ride in a semi-autonomous or fully autonomous vehicle.

Three out of four U.S. drivers said they would feel “afraid” to ride in self-driving cars, according to the AAA survey released on 1 Mar 2016. Just one in five said they would actually trust a driverless vehicle to drive itself with them inside. On the other hand, drivers who already owned vehicles with technologies such as automatic emergency braking or adaptive cruise control were more likely to trust such semi-autonomous features than drivers without experience of the technologies. If U.S. drivers can get used to semi-autonomous technologies, they might also change their minds about self-driving cars once they get a chance to try them later on.

“The first thing to come into people’s minds is trust and the reliability of the vehicle and technology,” says Brian Lathrop, a cognitive psychologist and senior manager of the Electronics Research Lab at the Volkswagen Group of America in Belmont, Ca., who did not take part in the AAA study. “There’s going to be a natural hesitation in putting your faith in a machine to do a task that you had typically taken care of in the past.”

Both tech giants and automakers that have invested billions in self-driving cars and similar robotic vehicle technology will need the driving public to learn to trust such vehicles. In that sense, the AAA survey provides a useful window into the mindset of the average U.S. driver, who has not actually experienced self-driving car technology firsthand. AAA conducted the survey through 1,832 phone interviews in January 2016.

But the fear of the unknown may not prove such a problem once drivers get to try out self-driving cars for themselves. Lathrop pointed out how Volkswagen previously conducted a “Wizard of Oz” study in Germany that tricked human volunteers into believing they were riding a robotic self-driving car. In fact, the cars had a hidden human driver. But it provided a nice opportunity to examine the volunteers’ levels of comfort and trust. After five to 10 minutes, volunteer riders seemed generally quite comfortable with the “self-driving cars” despite having doubts beforehand.

“People developed a sense of trust in the vehicle very quickly,” Lathrop explains. “Even though they usually had a prior sense of distrust, people’s minds quickly changed after having a short positive experience with the technology.” 

Similarly promising findings on trust issues came from recent research at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg, Va. In July 2015, a federally-funded study on semi-autonomous cars tested dozens of volunteer drivers in a Google self-driving prototype 2012 Lexus RX450h.

It was not quite the full automation experience of kicking back and allowing the self-driving car to do everything. The study still required the drivers to remain alert and sometimes watch road conditions in case they needed to take back control. But most drivers reported quickly becoming comfortable with having their hands and feet off the controls for those extended periods of time. Said one participant in the 25–39 age group:

“I thought it was really cool, I was a little wary of it at first, but it was surprisingly very reliable and trustworthy… Just the whole idea of not being in control of the vehicle and letting go of you know, and not having control, immediate control of the wheel or speed.”

Other sample responses also showed how early nervousness about self-driving cars may soon vanish for many drivers. A participant in the 18−24 age group said:

“It was pretty much right away, I mean I was a little uneasy trying to grab the wheel at first and try to still steer then I realized, ‘Wow it’s doing everything for me. Once I realized it was doing that I was ready to trust it right away.”

Researchers were able to test people’s levels of comfort and trust under different driving conditions, says Myra Blanco, director of the Center for Public Policy, Partnerships, and Outreach at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. They even simulated certain self-driving car failures to see how people would react and how quickly the level of trust would recover. The trust in the self-driving cars seemed to hold up overall.

“It’s not feasible right now, but ideally we’d have a lot of self-driving car prototypes and do public events where people can try those vehicles to see what they’re capable of doing,” Blanco says. “I think that would alleviate some concerns.”

Several age and gender differences in trust levels emerged through the recent AAA survey. 82 percent of baby boomers reported being afraid of riding in a self-driving car compared with 69 percent of the younger generations. And 81 percent of women participants reported such fear of riding in self-driving vehicles compared with 67 percent of men.

On the positive side, 61 percent of U.S. drivers surveyed said they wanted adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, self-parking, or another type of semi-autonomous technology in their next car. Baby boomers were most likely to cite safety as a reason for wanting advanced car technologies. By comparison, millennials were more likely than baby boomers to cite “convenience” and “wanting the latest technology.”

About half of women surveyed cited the hopeful possibility of semi-autonomous features helping to reduce stress. 42 percent of men also cited stress relief as a reason for wanting smarter cars capable of taking the load off of drivers. Those survey results suggest that drivers do at least have some sense of the potential benefits that semi-autonomous technologies could provide on the road.

“We want to find the right way to put these drivers and vehicles in a state of comfort and enjoyment,” Lathrop says. “If the vehicle is taking care of the monotonous task of driving through stop-and-go traffic, that improves your qualify of life.”

One of the trickiest future issues facing Lathrop and his Volkswagen lab involves how to seamlessly switch over from self-driving car modes to human driving modes. The smoothness of such changeovers could certainly have a big impact on how much human drivers trust robot cars. Other considerations may include displaying information that shows human drivers what their semi-autonomous or fully autonomous car is about to do.

“You’ll be sitting inside a robot which is responsible for your safety and the safety of people around you,” Lathrop says. “With that technology, there is a much higher bar in achieving the trust of users.”

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