A survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed that the recent fatal accidents involving self-driving cars had a dramatic effect on the public’s perception of the technology. In a matter of a few months, the percentage of Americans who expressed fear of riding in autonomous vehicles went from 63 to 73 percent.
In fact, about 65 percent of respondents said they were also afraid of walking down the street if autonomous cars were around.
Surprisingly, for all their enthusiasm for robotics and futuristic tech, millennials themselves expressed similar concerns.
For self-driving car manufacturers and operators, this is nothing more than a PR problem. However, it is, in reality, an ethical problem that the new industry is only beginning to assess.
People are afraid of the new, some say. They prefer a faulty, familiar system to the unknown. Another defense manufacturers often resort to when the media begins to scrutinize the technology, is that the human safety drivers were distracted every time the vehicles crashed.
What they do not mention is that the cars failed, their software failed, systems and radars failed, and there is no telling when that is going to happen again.
A recent study published in Risk Analysis aimed to establish the risk level that the public expects from self-driving cars.
According to the authors, who surveyed hundreds of people in China,
“Two risk acceptance criteria emerged: the tolerable risk criterion, which indicates that SDVs [self-driving vehicles] should be four to five times as safe as HDVs [human-driven vehicles], and the broadly acceptable risk criterion, which suggests that half of the respondents hoped that the traffic risk of SDVs would be two orders of magnitude lower than the current estimated traffic risk.”
These goals are yet to be met.
One interesting aspect of risks associated with SDVs is the potential for the vehicles to be hacked in order to harm consumers. With automation and internet connection comes cyber threat, and full automation might put passengers riding in driverless cars at risk.
Regulators working to establish appropriate standards to allow SDVs to be operated on U.S. streets must take all of these aspects into consideration. The problem of self-driving vehicle safety will not be solved by successful PR campaigns. The public now demands demonstrable safety, rather than mere ‘perceived safety.’
Commercials for self-driving cars often feature distracted drivers whose vehicles speedily brake to prevent a terrible accident. But until developers fine tune the technology, autonomous cars should remain in the lab, rather than out on U.S. streets.
John Uustal is a lawyer focused exclusively on people seriously hurt by defective products. He co-founded and leads Florida’s premier injury and wrongful death trial law firm.