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Public Remains Skeptical of Self-Driving Cars

Posted July 30, 2018

By Jonathan A. Karon

Despite the enthusiasm of industry and politicians, two recent surveys show that the general public remains skeptical of self-driving cars (technically known as “autonomous vehicles”).   An article in last Thursday’s Washington Post (“As driverless-car crashes mount, fear of riding in them rises, too”, July 26, 2018) cites two recent public opinion polls reflecting widespread public concern.  The Post reported that a Brookings Institution on-line survey found “61 percent of Americans said they were not inclined to ride in self-driving cars.”  Another poll, done by a group called “Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety” found 69 percent “were concerned about sharing the road with autonomous cars.”

The article provided few details about the polls or their estimated margin of error.  Nonetheless, it suggests a large number of people remain wary about driverless cars.  This is against a backdrop where a number of states, including Massachusetts, are not only allowing, but encouraging, companies to test autonomous vehicles on their streets.  Although the industry continues to maintain that ultimately self-driving cars will be safer than those operated by human drivers, there have also been legitimate causes for concern.  For example, last March a Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in circumstances where a forensic expert concluded a human driver would have avoided the collision.  (This incident is discussed in my blog post of March 23, 2018

Meanwhile, Congress is debating legislation, the AV START Act, which would preempt state regulation of self-driving cars and exempt autonomous vehicles from certain federal safety standards. The bill is presently stuck in the Senate where some Democratic Senators have argued that the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) needs to set stricter standards for self-driving cars.  According to the Post, in a conference call, “almost a dozen speakers from consumer and safety groups, universities and law enforcement voiced concerned about the AV START Act.”   Participants in the call included the Chief of Police of Montgomery County, Maryland, the policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, and the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.  Consumer groups want additional regulations added that would require full disclosure of crashes to NHTSA and the use of black box recorders like those found in commercial aircraft; requirements for testing what each car’s computers “can see”; and express permission for states to regulate driverless cars until federal laws are passed to preempt them from doing so.

At this stage, public skepticism and concern is understandable.  While the feasibility of this technology is tested, it is crucial that the safety of the community continue to be protected.





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