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January 19 2017

Americans Aren’t Really Warming Up to Self-Driving Cars

Patrice L. Onwuka

If driving with hands off the wheels sounds appealing then self-driving cars might be just up your ally. However, Americans aren’t really warming to the idea as new polling indicates. However, that may change with the incoming Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who appears to be an advocate for innovation.

Nearly two out of three adults say they might ride in an autonomous vehicle either now (23 percent) or in the future (42 percent), according to new polling. Yet, less than half (42 percent) view driverless cars favorably and more than half (47 percent) view them unfavorably. Furthermore, when asked about safety, their support wanes further. In the past year, the percentage of Americans who said autonomous cars are safe fell from 31 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, those who think they are unsafe held steady at 43 percent.

Worldwide viewpoints don’t get better, and a lack of trust plagues self-driving cars in other countries. In other polling, up to 74 percent feel that self-driving cars won’t be safe, but more  than two out of three (68 percent) Americans say they’d change their opinion once the safety of self-driving cars is proven:

"Automakers and technology companies first have to earn consumers' trust, then turn that trust into a willingness to pay for a must-have feature," said Craig Giffi, vice chairman and US automotive industry leader, Deloitte LLP, and co-author of the report. "Today trust is lacking. Ironically, fully autonomous vehicles are being engineered to be much safer than today's vehicles."

Perhaps the fatal crash of a vehicle being tested has shaken or Americans, but specific scenarios point to why we are shaky on the thought of taking our hands off the wheel. Given the breakneck pace of innovation and the resources that tech companies and auto companies are investing in the development of self-driving cars, we can expect that we’ll go from theory to a regular part of life in a matter of years. That is provided Washington remains open to allowing innovation to flourish.

A big determinate of that is the nominated incoming Secretary of Transportation. Elaine L. Chao’s role will be pivotal as the next administration takes the reins. Beyond self-driving cars, a bigger question looms: what will be the role of Washington in spurring or spurning innovation?

We got a taste of that and tech industry is hopeful based on her comments:

Addressing autonomous vehicles, including passenger cars and commercial trucks, as well as drones and their potential tremendous commercial impact, Chao noted that the “federal role is still very much in its infancy,” and said that going forward, the aim is to position that role “as a catalyst for safe, efficient technologies,” rather than as “an impediment” for the implementation of the same.

Chao said ensuring the ability of these technological improvements to flourish is key to “strengthening [U.S.] competitiveness” and “improving quality of life,” and noted that while there are lots of concerns remaining, her intent is to “work to address them” but in a way that “will not dampen basic innovation and creativity.”

It’s a positive sign that we can expect a more balanced approach. We’re watching for how Washington works to ensure that innovation is unleashed while balancing goals of public safety. Hopefully that will buoy fears and encourage developers to keep plowing ahead.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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