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Who's afraid of autonomous cars?

When Conan O'Brien jokes about autonomous cars on his TBS channel and on Twitter, you know that the topic has moved from geeky Palo Alto and Tel Aviv labs to mainstream consciousness. Jokes aside, news reports seem to indicate that most people have more confidence in human driving than in the possibility of robots doing a better job.

In the United States alone more than 30,000 people are killed in traffic accidents. In India a similar number of people are killed annually in road accidents, shocking as the number of four-wheelers is less than 15 million, compared to more than 250 private cars on U.S. roads. That's roughly equivalent to a deadly crash of a Boeing 737 in each of the United States and India!

Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation show that 90% of road accidents are caused by drivers' lack of attention, lack of sobriety and lack of responsibility. Yet, despite such clear evidence, most people purportedly have more confidence in human driving than autonomous cars. Several studies have shown that people dramatically overrate their driving ability, including one that found that 673 out of 909 motorists believed that they were better than the average driver (yes this is funny, at least to statisticians). At the same time, people also seem to accept that their self assessment may be judged as overly positive by others.

The explanation to this conundrum, in my opinion, is that the fact that driving is an extremely dangerous task for which we are ill prepared is just too difficult to accept. In other words, we construct a narrative that fits nicely with modern life's necessity of daily driving, a narrative that allows us to put strangers and our loved ones at mortal risk because we have no other choice in a life defined by mobility.

While we are good at constructing such counter-factual narratives, popular views of consumer-oriented robotics place autonomous driving in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, despite the amazing technological progress made in autonomous driving over the past two years. One should not expect consumers to care about the wonders of deep learning, GPUs, LiDAR and radar sensors -- attitudes will only change through experience - our own and that of people we trust.

Do most people reject autonomous driving as suggested by headlines in the press? A report by the World Economic Forum and The Boston Consulting Group suggests otherwise, as the chart below shows, with interesting global variations. India is most open to adopt autonomous driving, followed by China, the United Arab Emirates, France and Singapore. Of the countries surveyed, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, the United Kingdom dip below 50% positive attitude, with the United States just hovering above it.

These results seem to indicate a few (tentative) conclusions:

  • Need drives perception. For the rapidly urbanising China and India, mobility for the fast rising middle class is a must which, if offered by autonomous cars, will be embraced;

  • Authority has impact. Strong governments in economically advanced dense urban states like Singapore and UAE are able to shape public attitudes towards advanced mobility options;

  • The French are independent contrarian thinkers.

The emergence of small autonomous taxi fleets in American cities within the next three years will exert a major impact on consumer attitudes to autonomous cars. While some studies suggest age is not a factor in adoption of autonomous cars, I theorise that young urbanites (15 - 25) and the elderly (70 - ) will adopt autonomous taxis first. Young urbanites because they lack sufficient fear and the elderly because they lack sufficient choice.

Are you afraid of autonomous cars?

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