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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.

Go deeper

Resurrecting Martin Luther King's office

King points to Selma, Alabama on a map at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference office in Atlanta in January 1965. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Contributor

Efforts to save the office where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., planned some of the most important moments of the civil rights movement are hitting roadblocks amid a political stalemate.

Why it matters: The U.S. Park Service needs to OK agreements so a developer restoring the historic Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Atlanta — which once housed King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference — can tap into private funding and begin work.

Off the Rails

Episode 4: Trump turns on Barr

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Drew Angerer, Pool/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 4: Trump torches what is arguably the most consequential relationship in his Cabinet.

Attorney General Bill Barr stood behind a chair in the private dining room next to the Oval Office, looming over Donald Trump. The president sat at the head of the table. It was Dec. 1, nearly a month after the election, and Barr had some sharp advice to get off his chest. The president's theories about a stolen election, Barr told Trump, were "bullshit."

In photos: Protests outside fortified capitols draw only small groups

Armed members of the far-right extremist group the Boogaloo Bois near the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 17. About 20 protesters showed up, AP notes. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Small groups of protesters gathered outside fortified statehouses across the U.S. over the weekend ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

The big picture: Some protests attracted armed members of far-right extremist groups but there were no reports of clashes, as had been feared. The National Guard and law enforcement outnumbered demonstrators, as security was heightened around the U.S. to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, per AP.