Not everyone is ready to ride as autonomous vehicles take to the road in ever-increasing numbers

  • The number of self-driving vehicles on U.S. roadways is set to climb now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has updated guidelines, easing federal oversight.
  • Americans are far from sold on either the safety, or the benefits of self-driving vehicles. If anything, there's a deep distrust of the technology, surveys have found.
  • Changing their minds may prove more difficult than the industry might hope — a potentially serious problem considering that, by various estimates, spending on autonomous technology will run as high as $100 billion over the coming decade.
Students use the Waymo driverless vehicles to get to school.
Source: Waymo
Students use the Waymo driverless vehicles to get to school.

Pennsylvania regulators this week gave the nod to Aurora, an autonomous vehicle software company, to begin testing its prototypes on state roads, joining a growing list of states, from Alabama to Washington and, of course, California, that have approved public testing.

Hundreds of self-driving vehicles are now plying U.S. roadways, and the numbers could climb into the thousands, perhaps even the hundreds of thousands, now that the U.S. Department of Transportation has updated guidelines, easing federal oversight in a bid to encourage automakers and tech companies like Aurora and Alphabet's Waymo to speed up development.

"Our country is on the verge of one of the most exciting innovations in transportation," said Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last month, speaking from Mcity, an autonomous vehicle test center operated by the University of Michigan.

Just a week earlier, the House of Representatives, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, passed its version of the SELF DRIVE Act, which could result in as many as 100,000 self-driving cars taking to the road by 2021 or 2022, depending on how soon the Senate moves on its version of the bill.

By then, several automakers, include Tesla, Nissan and General Motors, as well as Waymo, already hope to be either selling self-driving vehicles or at least using them in commercial ride-sharing services. Those services will need to find people willing to go along for the ride. And that may prove more difficult than the industry might hope — a potentially serious problem considering that, by various estimates, spending on autonomous technology will run as high as $100 billion over the coming decade.

Waymo has been running a pilot program in the Phoenix area and earlier this year won approval from the state to turn it into a commercial venture. It has contracted with Jaguar and Fiat Chrysler to purchase as many as 60,000 vehicles over the coming years, with a goal of expanding the service to a number of other, as yet-unidentified U.S. cities.

General Motors is planning to put a self-driving version of its Chevrolet Bolt EV into fleet testing in 2019. For those who prefer something a little more exotic, French automaker Renault revealed a driverless concept, dubbed EZ-Ultimo, at the Paris Motor Show last week. Measuring 224 inches nose-to-tail, or only slightly smaller than a conventional Mercedes-Maybach Pullman limousine, Ultimo is designed to be a "rolling palace," said Renault, where passengers sit in a circle and enjoy the amenities of a lounge on wheels.

A study released at the beginning of the year by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that by the end of the next decade, fully 20 to 25 percent of the miles that Americans travel by car will be logged by fully driverless vehicles operated by ride-sharing services such as Waymo, Uber, Lyft and GM's Maven.

Selling Americans on self-driving vehicles

But, on a broader scale, it appears that Americans are far from sold on either the safety, or the benefits of self-driving vehicles. If anything, there's a deep distrust of the technology, with more than four out of 10 Americans saying they "would never ride" in a fully automated vehicle, according to a new study conducted in partnership by research firm J.D. Power and Associates and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, or NAMIC.

The study found fully 15 percent of the American public "don't believe there will ever be an autonomous vehicle on the market, and 42 percent said they would never ride in a fully automated vehicle," according to Robert Lajdziak, a senior J.D. Power researcher and analyst.

In an open letter to Sen. John Thune, a co-sponsor of the Senate's AV START Act, consumer and auto safety activist Ralph Nader accused the South Dakota Republican of "leading a reckless charge to open the floodgates for driverless cars before this nascent technology is shown to be safe." Nader, who came to prominence as the author of "Unsafe at Any Speed," a book that documented safety problems with the old Chevrolet Corvair, pointed to various recent incidents involving autonomous prototypes, including one that took the life of a pedestrian who was struck by an Uber test vehicle near Phoenix.

Source: Cruise

That crash, last March, occurred about the same time as a Tesla Model X, operating in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode, slammed into a highway barrier in California, killing its driver. At least two Americans are known to have been killed in crashes involving the use of the Autopilot system and federal safety regulators are in the midst of several ongoing investigations — even though Tesla CEO Elon Musk has, in recent weeks, been hinting an even more advanced version of the technology could be activated by the end of this year.

Anecdotally, Tesla owners seem to be in love with Autopilot, YouTube is filled with videos of drivers demonstrating it in operation — frequently by engaging in stunts Tesla itself says the system isn't designed to handle.

Eliminating highway deaths

Proponents of autonomous vehicles — including Mark Rosekind, the former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief — typically cite several reasons to put the technology on the road. That includes better use of existing highway infrastructure, as well as improved safety. Rosekind contends driverless vehicles could all but eliminate highway deaths.

Considering more than 40,000 Americans die in crashes each year that would seem to be a big plus. But the Power/NAMIC study found that the public seems far more willing to accept frequent crashes with a human at the wheel than even an occasional one involving a driverless vehicle. Fully 56 percent of those surveyed would demand 100 percent safety before they would take a ride, and 60 percent said they'd demand the same level of safety before letting a family member step into a fully autonomous vehicle.

"In other words," said Lajdziak, they would accept the possibility of "no accidents at all — before they would ride in one."

The rather pessimistic attitudes that surfaced in the Power/NAMIC study are echoed by several other public surveys over the last year, but not all, and may reflect that "people's opinions have been swayed" by recent incidents, such as the fatal Uber crash, said Lajdziak.

Meanwhile, there was a bright side to the report. Among those under 35, especially those living in urban areas where ride-sharing services have gained traction, "there's a general acceptance of new technology," the Power analyst said.

Proponents, in general, are betting that as more vehicles using semi- and fully autonomous technology, never mind completely driverless products, take to the road, the comfort level will increase and more people will say they're willing to go for a ride.

One thing that could help is the increasing availability of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, also known as ADAS. This includes features like blind-spot monitoring and lane-keeping assist. BMW's new Traffic Jam Assistant allows virtually hands-free operation at low speeds, and Cadillac's Super Cruise lets a driver take their hands off the wheel on well-marked limited-access highways.

Nissan still requires a driver to keep hands on the wheel — albeit lightly, with the car doing most of the work of steering — with its ProPilot Assist. But it plans to increase the system's capabilities each year, until it goes fully autonomous early in the coming decade.

In a response to Nader's letter, Thune wrote that, "Every year for decades, tens of thousands of travelers have lost their lives in crashes on U.S. roads. In 94 percent of these cases, human error is a factor. One day, self-driving vehicle technology should help drastically reduce this tragic loss of life."

Proponents hope to prove, as more and more of these smart cars take to the road that they can co-exist with human driver, bicyclists and pedestrians, steadily improving safety as well as the flow of traffic on crowded urban environs.

They will have an uphill battle. It's one thing to sell a skeptical public on the merits of a smartphone, another matter entirely when the new technology could potential put their life at risk.