The same week that the Department of Motor Vehicles gave Uber permission to deploy two self-driving vehicles on California streets, an AAA survey revealed Americans are anything but comfortable riding in cars that have a robot behind the wheel.
The Auto Club revealed that three-quarters of U.S. drivers fear riding in self-driving cars; a majority (54 percent) feel less safe sharing the road with them. Baby boomer drivers were the most likely (85 percent) to express fear of riding in autonomous cars, the survey found.
John M. Simpson, the privacy project director of Santa Monica–based Consumer Watchdog, has been a longtime critic of self-driving vehicles, arguing they're not ready for the road. The nonprofit has raised red flags when the vehicles have been involved in collisions.
"The AAA poll reflects a healthy skepticism on the part of the public about the state of robot car technology," Simpson said via email. "Once we look past the hype of the self-driving car developers, it’s clear we’ve got a long way to go before the technology is safely and widely deployed. The poll shows that the public understands that reality."
Ironically, AAA found that most respondents (59 percent) desire "autonomous vehicle technology" in their own rides. "Some U.S. drivers are using driver-assistance technologies in their cars today and feel they don’t work consistently enough to replace a human driver — and they’re correct," according to a statement from Megan McKernan, manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center.
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After the controversial deployment of self-driving cars in the Bay Area last year, Uber this week was granted an "autonomous vehicle test permit" that covers two vehicles and 48 test drivers, DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said via email.
Uber put robot cars on the streets of San Francisco in December, with drivers behind the wheel, but pulled them from service after city officials complained. The ride-hail company argued that its vehicles didn't meet the DMV's definition of autonomous cars.
In January, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that "Daimler has planned to introduce and operate their own self-driving cars on Uber’s ride-sharing network." Autonomous vehicles are a holy grail for ride-hail companies because they would cut labor costs and help the company take over personal transportation.
Proponents of self-driving cars also argue that, even with occasional fender-benders, they're much safer than human drivers and will ultimately save lives. "They will ... help to reduce traffic accidents, which today kill many people a year; free up the huge amount of space currently used to park the world’s billion-plus cars; and cut congestion, which is choking our cities," Kalanick said in his announcement.