Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Women are less enthusiastic than men about the prospect of driverless cars. Until researchers understand why, it will be difficult for autonomous vehicle developers to win their trust.

Why it matters: AVs are supposed to bring fewer traffic deaths and improved access to transportation, but only if people trust them. To deliver on those promises, AV companies need to consider women's concerns about the technology, which could be exacerbated by worries about personal safety and a lack of accountability when there is no driver present.

Key stat: Overall, 71% of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles, according to AAA, but it turns out women are far less comfortable (79%) with AVs than men (62%).

  • AAA did not probe deeper to find out why trust is lower among women, nor, it seems, have any other researchers.
  • But the gender gap also popped up in a study by researchers at MIT's Age Lab, who were looking at generational differences in attitudes toward AVs.
  • 53% of women (vs. 32% of men) would prefer a "help driver" on board an AV (regardless of age), the MIT study found.
  • Only 14.3% of women (vs. 30% of men) would be comfortable with full autonomy.

One possible reason for the trust gap between men and women is that the people designing self-driving cars are mostly male and haven't asked for female input, says Meredith Broussard, NYU professor and author of "Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World."

  • "Technochauvinists" — those who believe technology will solve everything — are often blind to social issues like gender parity and diversity, she says.
  • In fact, women are often overlooked in the data used for designing everything from medical devices to transit systems, Caroline Criado Perez writes in a new book, "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men."
  • As I wrote recently, women face a much higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash because safety systems are designed to protect the "average male."

Intel unearthed some gender differences in its research on driverless cars with TEAGUE, a Seattle-based design consultancy.

  • "The women in our study — and especially the moms — had very different thoughts about both the safety of an AV as well as its utility," Jack Weast, Intel senior principal engineer, said in an email.
  • Parents, for example, liked the idea of transporting their kids without a stranger behind the wheel but they were also concerned about the lack of accountability when there is no driver.

To make women and others feel less vulnerable in a shared AV, TEAGUE offers some solutions:

  • Cameras and microphones could be mounted inside the vehicle for remote monitoring and to allow passengers to check the interior before they board.
  • Passengers could use their mobile phone or a preset "safe word" to discreetly reroute the vehicle to a police station if they feel threatened.
  • At night, AVs systems could be programmed to suggest a route through a populated area rather than the shortest route.

Yes, but: All it takes is a sticky note to defeat an internal monitoring camera, notes Broussard.

The bottom line: AVs are supposed to provide safer mobility for all, so they need to be designed with everyone in mind.

Go deeper: Self-driving cars need to be better mind readers

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