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As companies race to develop self-driving cars, Americans remain ambivalent

As companies continue working to get self-driving cars into production, acceptance of the technology remains “stuck in neutral,” according to AAA. In a study conducted by the organization, only 12% of Americans surveyed said they would feel safe riding in a self-driving car.

Of the remaining respondents, 28% said they did not know how they felt about the technology. Many indicated they wanted more information on key issues of autonomous cars, as well as assurance that the technology would be adequately regulated.

About half (49%) said they wanted to know how vulnerable self-driving cars would be to hackers, and 57% said they would like to have a clear understanding of who would be legally responsible in the event of a crash with a self-driving car. In addition, 51% said they were interested in laws to ensure autonomous-vehicle safety.

“Consumers have made it clear what it will take to overcome their doubts — consistent and transparent information — which will help make them feel safer about the idea of riding in a self-driving car,” Greg Brannon, AAA director of automotive engineering and industry relations, said in a statement.

People might be more likely to trust self-driving cars if they were more familiar with the technology, the study indicates. Of those surveyed, 42% said they would feel safer after “seeing or experiencing a demonstration prior to getting into a self-driving car,” while 47% said they would feel safer knowing a self-driving car had passed “rigorous testing and inspections,” according to AAA.

Opportunities for the general public to ride in self-driving cars are currently limited to a handful of demonstration programs. In line with AAA’s results, Lyft credits a Las Vegas program run in concert with Aptiv for getting more people to trust autonomous cars. Waymo is currently transporting paying customers around Phoenix in prototype self-driving cars and has received positive feedback from riders.

But the majority of respondents also wanted to keep human drivers in the loop. Almost three quarters (72%) said they would feel safer riding in a self-driving car if they had the ability to take control, while 69% said they would feel safer with a human backup driver on board.

Those preferences contradict the trajectory of self-driving car development. While most cars currently operating on public roads have human backup drivers, Waymo already runs some cars without them. Both General Motors and Ford have promised to build autonomous cars without manual controls. Most companies expect to use self-driving cars in ridesharing and delivery services, where eliminating human drivers could lead to greater profits. Companies would no longer have to split earnings with drivers, and autonomous cars could theoretically stay on the road longer — generating more revenue.

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Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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