Tech Talk: Public Opinion Of Autonomous Cars Is Changing

Not too long ago, a study came to light that showed what a sampling of the population thought of self-driving cars. It turns out the majority of those surveyed did not trust self-driving tech enough to entrust their Saturday drive or Monday commute to it. That attitude is still quite prevalent, but a survey conducted by Volvo seems to show that people are beginning to come around. As self-driving cars become more and more widespread, a good chunk of the population in some areas may have even managed to catch a glimpse of self-driving cars in action. According to the survey, what it boils down to is, quite simply, people like driving; driving is a people activity, and they're not ready to give it up to machines. The fair majority of respondents viewed it as a luxury, about 72% of them, to be exact, saying that it "must be preserved". While this attitude is still not in favor of Google's approach, which lacks pretty much any human input from inside the vehicle, it's quite the positive change from "I don't trust a self-driving car."

Volvo's survey hit 31 markets and around 50,000 people. Of those, only 55% clamored for a steering wheel. Let that sink in for a second; when an automaker surveyed a massive swath of their own market, 45% of those, close to half, said that they were fine with having pretty much no control whatsoever over their drive. While almost all self-driving cars seem like they're going to at least come with a way for the human inside the car to commence an emergency stop. In some of these models, when the car needs human help, it will likely be provided from the outside, meaning that even in an uncertain situation, these people would still not be in control, although they would be in a fellow human's hands and not a robot's. In any case, this alone shows vastly increased acceptance of ceding control of a drive.

86% of those surveyed say that lawmakers are dragging their feet when it comes to getting a legal framework laid out for self-driving cars. Naturally, many tech companies and even the US DOT chairman wholeheartedly agree. Part of the issue, as far as law goes, is liability. Interestingly, 79% of the survey group believe that the automaker should have to pay if a car in autonomous mode manages to crash, rather than the car's legal owner or the tech company that created the software. This seems to indicate that, talking about failure situations for self-driving cars, most seem convinced that if any catastrophic failure were to happen, it would be due to a hardware failure. Of course, this could also have something to do with the 72% of respondents who believe that an automaker, rather than a tech company, will bring self-driving technology into the mainstream. In those cases, the automaker would be in charge of both hardware and software, except in cases of partners using a tech company's software, like Ford. With those numbers of respondents, though, 100% overlap is impossible and the percentage who want automaker liability is larger. This means, factually, that at least some people out there have more faith in self-driving software than in car makers' hardware.

Taken by and large, all signs point to more trust in the tech companies working on the software for self-driving cars, and increased willingness to give up the controls. While 50,000 is a bit of a narrow group on the world stage and may not be an accurate microcosm of everybody that could have a chance to sit in a self-driving car in the next decade, it's also sizable enough to be taken with relatively few grains of salt. Put quite simply, there is a legitimate worldwide shift going on in consumers' perception of self-driving cars. Whether that shift in perception will be any help in getting the cars live, past lawmakers and into market is all up to the tech companies, ridesharing companies, and automakers pushing the technology forward.

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