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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

26 mins ago - Health

White House says Obamacare sign-ups hit record

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaking in the White House in December 2021. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The White House said Thursday that a record 14.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through Obamacare marketplaces since Nov. 1, including more than 10 million enrollments through HealthCare.gov.

Why it matters: Last year's stimulus bill contained substantial investments in the program, including increased subsidies for people who don't receive health insurance from an employer or through Medicare or Medicaid.

47 mins ago - World

Kremlin says U.S. written responses ignored Russia's main NATO demand

Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Dimitar DilkoffI/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that the United States' written answers to Russia's security demands do not contain a "positive response" to the Kremlin's top priority, which is a freeze on NATO expansion, according to Russian state media.

Why it matters: A spokesperson for the Kremlin stressed that no conclusions will be drawn until Russian President Vladimir Putin has time to analyze the papers, but a lack of movement on Russia's core concerns means the crisis over Ukraine is unlikely to de-escalate.

How your plumber could lead the electric vehicle revolution

Ford Pro Intelligence gives farmers access to important data on every vehicle – whether gas-powered or electric. Image courtesy of Ford.

Businesses like farmers, contractors and delivery companies — not individual consumers — will lead America into the electric vehicle era, judging from how demand is currently shaping up.

Why it matters: While consumers are waiting on the sidelines to see if the charging infrastructure improves and prices come down, commercial businesses see EVs as a way to boost their productivity and improve operations.