Nation & World

Fear of driverless cars on the rise

Tech companies, automakers have been testing vehicles in a dozen states

Bloomberg

A General Motors Cruise autonomous test vehicle is parked at a charging station in San Francisco.
Bloomberg A General Motors Cruise autonomous test vehicle is parked at a charging station in San Francisco.
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Americans have been shaken by crashes of driverless cars and their semiautonomous counterparts, two recent surveys show, and consumer groups are pushing back against what they say is a flawed effort in Congress to regulate the vehicles.

They have insisted that the Senate put regulatory teeth into a bill they think will be tacked onto a must-pass reauthorization bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

A coalition of consumer and safety groups stepped in this week to oppose the bill, suggesting it be sent back to committee to add stricter regulations for the emerging technology.

“We do believe the autonomous vehicle has tremendous potential, but if untested vehicles are let loose into the marketplace, you are going to potentially turn consumers off,” said Jack Gillis, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer organizations.

“We are going to slowly turn consumers farther and farther away from the potential of good that the autonomous vehicle can do.”

Two public opinion surveys released this week underscored the growing trepidation over the advent of driverless cars. A Brookings Institution online survey found that 61 percent of Americans said they were not inclined to ride in self-driving cars.

A poll done at the weekend by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found that 69 percent of those surveyed said they were concerned about sharing the road with autonomous cars.

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In addition to the survey responses, concerns over driverless vehicles have echoed in other places — the infrastructure think tank HNTB found in a poll this past month that 70 percent of people expect autonomous vehicles to arrive within the next 15 years — but 59 percent said they would be no safer than cars with human drivers.

These findings come despite the often-cited figure that 94 percent of car crashes are caused by human error and the fact that most traffic fatalities in 2016 were caused by three factors that fully autonomous cars might eliminate — distracted driving, drunken driving and speeding.

Automakers and technology companies are painfully aware that a crash of a driverless car receives extraordinary media attention, even if the autonomous vehicle is not at fault. When a truck backed into a self-driving bus that was stuck in traffic in Las Vegas in November, a headline said, “Las Vegas’ self-driving bus crashes in first hour of service.”

Companies have been testing vehicles in a dozen states, and one of the industry pioneers — a Google spinoff called Waymo — last week said its test cars were averaging 25,000 miles a day on public roads and had surpassed eight million total miles since 2009.

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