How do you feel about self-driving cars? If you answered, "I can't wait to get one!" you're in the minority. A survey of more than 1,000 Americans by AAA reveals that 78 percent of us are afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, and 54 percent don't want one anywhere near us while we're on the road. On the other hand, 60 percent of us want our own vehicles to have at least some autonomous features, such as automatic braking or the ability to park by themselves.

The findings emerge at an interesting time for the self-driving industry, with California lawmakers clearing the way for completely driverless cars just three days after AAA released its findings. (Under current law, self-driving cars must always carry a human driver who can take over if need be.)

At the same time, 2016 was the most dangerous year in a long time on U.S. roadways, with 40,000 traffic fatalities, more than any time since 2007. Traffic fatalities had been on the decline for many years, probably due to safer car design, but they increased significantly in both 2015 and 2016. Why? Many experts point to texting and general distracted driving, although it may be tough to say precisely what caused the increase. But it does seem clear that autonomous driving features such as adaptive cruising (the car slows if you get too close to a car in front of you) and lane departure warnings could help make driving safer again.

A self-driving car is probably a better driver than you are.

The thing is, so could self-driving cars. Despite the fact that they give some people the willies (as AAA's survey shows) and despite the first self-driving car fatality last summer, statistics suggest that self-driving cars are safer, on average, than human-driven ones, since last summer's crash was the first fatality in over 130 million miles of self-driving, whereas there is one fatality on average for every 89 million miles of human driving.

Attitudes will likely change over time, notes Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering at AAA. "AAA has found that drivers who own vehicles equipped with autonomous driver assistance features are, on average, 75 percent more likely to trust the technology than those who do not own it," he explains. "This suggests that gradual experience with these advanced features can ease consumer fears."

Indeed, the survey results suggest that younger people are more willing to trust self-driving technology than older ones, with 60 percent of Baby Boomers afraid to share the road with self-driving cars, but only 43 percent of Millennials.

In any case, with fully driverless cars likely to hit the roads in California next year, or possibly even this year, and likely to be introduced in other states as well, many of use will have to either swallow our fears, or just stay home.

Published on: Mar 11, 2017
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