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Most Americans fear driverless cars

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A lot of Americans are fearful of autonomous cars, but 33% are at least somewhat likely to buy one once they are available, according to a new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll.

Why it matters: To the degree the survey is accurate and reflects a broad global trend, everything from the world's sprawling car industry, to roads and cities themselves, could be on the cusp of a fundamental transformation.

The backdrop: Every carmaker on the planet, large and small, in addition to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and governments, seems united in the conviction that we are all going to abandon the wheel and be driven around by robots.

The trouble is that, apart from a few daredevils abusing (and sometimes crashing) Teslas, there has been little indication to date that a significant number of the world's drivers want such cars.

  • But the Axios/SurveyMonkey poll revealed a solid minority of Americans are at least open to considering a purchase — in all age categories through 54. While roughly a third said they were at least somewhat likely to buy one.

As of now, the loudest signal continues to come from the supply side: In a report released Friday, Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak observed that Waymo, Alphabet's autonomous car venture, is scaling up:

  • Last week, Waymo committed to buy up to 62,000 Chrysler minivans; that's on top of its agreement with Jaguar to add autonomy to 20,000 all-electric I-Pace SUVs.
  • At almost the same time, Softbank announced a $2.25 billion investment in GM's Cruise self-driving division.
  • "The AV arms race is heating up," Nowak said.

Yes but, according to the Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, a majority of Americans are scared of autonomous cars:

  • 68% are fearful as pedestrians, walking around amid self-driving cars.
  • 64% said they are fearful as a passenger.
  • Only 10% said they would feel extremely or very safe as a passenger or pedestrian.

What they're saying: Stanford University professor Jerry Kaplan writes in the WSJ that the problem is not that people reject risk — they know driving is dangerous. It's that they reject risks that seem bizarre: They do not accept machines making mistakes that a human wouldn't; after all, the machines are supposed to be better. That's ostensibly why we are turning to autonomous cars.

  • Kaplan cites an MIT study in which a Google AI system was "duped into mistaking an obvious image of a turtle for a rifle, and a cat for some guacamole."
  • In the March death of a pedestrian in Arizona, Uber engineers had disabled an autonomous car's emergency braking system "to reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior," said the National Transportation Safety Board, quoted by USAToday.
  • The adjustment was to correct for just the sort of bizarre, lurching vehicular accidents that make many consumers fearful.
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