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75% Of Americans Think Self-Driving Cars Aren’t Safe

What do they think of human drivers, though?

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could one day make roads much safer, experts believe. Studies show the rate of crashes and fatalities falling in proportion to the rate of AVs coming into circulation. Safety really is the whole point of driverless driving: machines, in theory, are more reliable than human beings.

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But this message hasn’t reached or convinced the public yet. Whether it’s because they’ve heard about Tesla “Autopilot” accidents, or because they overestimate their own driving skills, people are generally scared of what AVs can do, not pacified by the thought of them. About three-quarters of Americans (74%) say AVs will not be safe when they’re released, according to a new poll from Deloitte, the consultancy firm.

“Consumers have a great deal of fear [AVs] will be safe, though there’s a strong belief [in the industry] that the fear factor will go down when people spend time in the vehicles,” says Craig Giffi, who leads Deloitte’s U.S. auto industry practice.

[Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty Images]

By comparison, people in India and China are slightly less scared of AVs, while people in South Korea and Japan are more scared (this despite the Japanese normally embracing automation at a quicker rate than consumers in other countries).

The consensus is that driverless cars will start becoming fully available in the early-2020s. But it may be a long time before they become mainstream. Giffi expects regulation to become more onerous in the next few years and for car replacement rates–which have become slower over time, as cars have generally improved–to serve as an inherent barrier to adoption. The average age of the roughly 270 million cars on the road is about 11 years, meaning that AVs won’t reach a “tipping point” until the mid-2030s at the earliest.

Giffi says auto manufacturers and tech companies that want to develop AVs face a dilemma. They see that AVs, given their prospective convenience and safety, are inevitable. But developing AVs represents a hefty investment, people are increasingly happy with today’s technology, and automation could pose a psychological barrier to many.

“If [they] get too far out ahead of the curve, there may not be a first-mover advantage. But, being too far behind the curve, the question is, ‘can you keep up?,'” Giffi says.

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The survey shows consumers are more trusting of traditional automakers when it comes to AVs than startups or technology companies transitioning into the market (like Google or Apple). In the U.S., about half of consumers say they would trust a traditional company first, but the numbers are turned around in other countries. In China, where the auto industry is much younger, new companies are seen as more trustworthy.

The survey shows that Americans are also far from excited by the prospect of hybrid or fully electric vehicles. Only 24% of consumers say they would buy such cars. Interestingly, though, the numbers are much higher in China (53%) and South Korea (42%).

The rise of ride-hailing (like Uber) and shared mobility services (like Zipcar) also present a strategic quandary. Among consumers who’ve used such services, about half in the U.S. say they now question the need to own a car. Among generations Y and Z, that number rises to almost two-thirds (64%).

For the moment, the shift from ownership to “mobility” is very much centered on urban centers, says Giffi. But it could affect rural areas more as these services are rolled out more widely, he says. For example, families may reconsider whether they need to buy second and third cars if alternatives exist.

Giffi expects carmakers to continue to invest in mobility services as time goes on. “It really changes the model of the business and that can be very concerning to automakers. They are unlikely to stand still as they watch the market grow,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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