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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Traditional SUVs and sports cars were the stars at this week's preview of Detroit auto show, but behind the scenes, some auto industry executives openly fretted about an uncertain future, including big questions about whether society is ready for self-driving cars.

The big picture: Autonomous vehicles are supposed to make the roads safer and improve access to transportation for all. To prepare for their arrival, automakers are placing huge bets to transform their businesses, with massive implications for jobs and consumers.

The timetable for the arrival of fully self-driving cars is hazy, but it's clear at least two giant hurdles stand in the way: risk and trust.

The big question: How safe is safe enough for consumers and regulators?

"Is the government really willing to accept the risk of people dying at the hands of computers if a handful of people die along the way? I think the answer is no."
— Jim Lentz, CEO, Toyota North America

Consumers aren't exactly clamoring for them. AAA found that nearly three-quarters of American drivers are afraid of riding in a self-driving car, up from 63% in 2017.

"Somehow we have to get consumers to trust that these computers will not put them in jeopardy."
— Jim Lentz
  • People hold machines to a higher standard than human drivers because they have no empathy for them, says Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute.
  • Yet computers aren't as good at driving as humans and can't predict human behavior.
  • Toyota aims to win trust for full self-driving cars by first introducing Guardian mode, which intervenes when the driver is about to make a dangerous mistake like overcorrecting to avoid an obstacle.
  • Their hope is that consumers will gradually learn to trust AV technology, as they did with antilock brakes, cruise control and blind-spot warnings.

Yes, but: Safety advocates say automakers have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that the public is wary of autonomous vehicles.

  • "As long as the tech and the auto industries are promising AVs will deliver zero deaths, that’s what people and regulators will expect," says Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Automotive Safety.
  • They can save more lives by installing proven life-saving technology like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping technology as standard equipment on all vehicles, Levine argues.

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 11 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”