People at a Car Exhibition

Understanding public opinion on autonomous vehicles

Robot cars are having a moment. They’re approaching the Peak of Inflated Expectations on the venerable Gartner Hype Cycle (though Gartner had them peaking in August, 2015).  I was curious to understand the current state of public opinion on the topic of autonomous vehicles. I regularly see studies, polls and surveys come out, but haven’t seen them collected in one place. Plus, south of the border, it’s election season.

Here is a summary of the credible surveys of the public I could find on the topic of autonomous vehicles:

  1. A study (PDF) by the University of Michigan found that 43.8% of drivers said they didn’t want any automation at all in their next vehicles. 95% of drivers said that they would still want access to a steering wheel and other controls even if their vehicle was automated.
  2. 68% of Americans surveyed by Volvo said driving a car manually is a “luxury that should be preserved”.
  3. The Pew Research Center found that 48% of those surveyed would like to take a ride in an autonomous car, more than would eat meat grown in a lab (20%) or augment their brain with an implant (26%).
  4. A focus group run by KPMG (PDF) found that women were slightly more receptive to autonomous vehicles than men, with women rating their willingness to ride in a self-driving car at 6.5/10, and men putting their willingness at 6/10.
  5. A study (PDF) in the journal Science entitled “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles”, found that “76% of participants thought that it would be more moral for autonomous vehicles to sacrifice one passenger, rather than kill ten pedestrians”. In the same study, respondents were asked to indicate how likely they would be to buy an autonomous vehicle programmed to minimize casualties (instead, sacrificing themselves and other family members in the car) and how likely they would be to buy an autonomous vehicle programmed to prioritize protecting its passengers, even if it meant killing 10 or 20 pedestrians. 50% said they would buy the self-preserving model, while only 19% said they’d buy the former.
  6. A GfK survey of 5,800 consumers in six countries found that people identified safety as the top benefit of self-driving cars. Other benefits, given equal weight by respondents, were reduced costs, easier parking and more free time.
  7. An American Automobile Association (AAA) survey showed that 75% of respondents would be afraid to trust a self-driving car to drive itself with them in it. Women (81%) were less trustworthy than men (67%), and baby boomers (82%) were less trustworthy than younger generations (69%). One does wonder what purpose the AAA will serve once the robot cars takeover, but that’s a consideration for another time.
  8. Bucking the trend, AlixPartners found that 73% of respondents would be willing to cede all driving activity to a self-driving vehicle. The company’s, head of the consulting firm’s automotive practice, Mark Wakefield, said that “autonomous driving increases the economic utility of the commuter.” That’s a worrying phrase, isn’t it? Is he imagining “drivers” moonlighting in call centres while being carried to their day job.

Of all the studies I looked at, only one demonstrated a clear majority of people ready to jump into a fully-autonomous vehicle. The rest show a clear reluctance to give up control, with concerns focusing on safety and cost being the primary stated barriers.

Photo courtesy of Nvidia Corporation.


  1. i guess trying to predict the pace of self driving cars is difficult. i see so much bad human driving daily i can’t see software being any worse. i think let’s go for it with 2 suppliers in Vancouver (e.g. google and tesla and the ability to switch like movingyour wordpress blog it should be that easy or even easier) and trial it now.

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