Autonomous Vehicles: Public Opinion

June’s Northeast Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (NECAV) summit brought together some of the great minds working with this vehicle technology today. Over the course of two days, attendees and invited speakers expressed their thoughts, questions, and experiences within the burgeoning field of connected and autonomous driving systems (CADS). Representatives from state DOTs, Consumer Reports, MIT and Volvo all shared their expertise, fielding inquiries regarding potential cybersecurity issues, licensing and vehicle registration for consumers, and how CADS might affect other areas of transportation, such as airline and railways.

The environmental impact and societal implications of CADS becomes more palpable as developments in intelligent vehicle technology continue to evolve. Many advanced driver-assist features are already being used daily by the general public (e.g., lane keep assist, cruise control). Manufacturers are building systems with more autonomy so vehicles can take on more task by themselves, but does increased autonomy mean increased confidence? The level of social acceptance and continued education of CADS is directly related to their effectiveness in reducing motor vehicle crashes. Just how far away from social acceptance of CADS are we?

Public Opinion:

“People Rage Against Waymo Self-Driving Cars by Pointing Guns at Them and Slashing Their Tires”

That was the headline for an article run in December 2018, citing “a litany of incidents” between Waymo’s self-driving ride-share vehicles and the citizens of Chandler, Arizona (The Drive, 2018). Safety drivers, which Waymo deploys with each of their vehicles as a precaution, have had to handle harassment and threats from the public. Some drivers have even had to drive to the local police station to escape harassment and the threat of harm from other drivers. The media outlet AZ Central speculates that people are partially frustrated with the way vehicles drive (i.e., obeying all traffic laws) but that it more so has to do with a fear of job displacement (AZ Central, 2018). A 2017 AAA climate survey reported that 75% of drivers are afraid to ride in autonomous vehicles. In 2019 follow up of the survey, this proportion only dropped by 4% (AAA, 2019).

There is also a broader question, one that I feel should be near the top of the priority list of those in the automotive industry: how will autonomous vehicles solve or exacerbate inequality in traffic safety? Research states that traffic collisions are higher in places with lower socioeconomic status and that fatalities in these areas are double those of high-income areas (Lin et al., 2019; Venture Beat, 2017). With some auto companies like GM and Ford shutting down production of conventional cars to put more focus into CADS, some critics worry that these newer vehicles will not be affordable for those in lower-income areas (Vox, 2018; Salon, 2019). Shared autonomous vehicles are expected to help alleviate this burden but will they face the same issues as current ride-sharing services? Companies such as Uber and Lyft are typically marketed to professionals in dense urban areas, near city centers with lots of businesses nearby. This leaves out residents of rural areas and more impoverished areas of large cities, or those who have been forced to the suburbs because of rising home prices and have a commute longer than 30 minutes. For shared autonomous vehicles to create a solution rather than add to an existing problem, companies would need to market to these “forgotten populations” and federal, and state regulations would need to ensure the fair distribution of these services. Transdev, a French shared mobility service promises to address these concerns head-on, offering “efficient and inclusive mobility solutions everywhere and for all” on their website (Transdev, 2019). Utilized across Europe and in three cities in Florida (Gainsville, Babcock Ranch, and Jacksonville), the company offers service at night or during off-peak hours to accommodate individuals who work odd hours or have more than one job. Transdev also serves private and restricted access sites with their ‘door-to-door’ policy.

Inrix, a data and analytics company that participated in the 2019 NECAV, is one of several members of PAVE, the Partners for Automated Vehicle Education working hard to change public opinion. PAVE brings together leaders from academia, nonprofits, and the automotive industry, “with the goal of informing the public about automated vehicles and their potential so everyone can fully participate in shaping the future of transportation” (Pave Campaign, 2019). One effort of Inrix and others within PAVE is to rectify all the inadequate information and the confusion in the market surrounding the operation of vehicles with CADS. The differences in CADS names and capabilities from each vehicle manufacturer only stands to increase confusion of an already foreign technology among consumers. Transportation research does reveal, however, that this technology is not completely foreign to everyone and that among males and young adults in particular, AV technology is received well (Moody et al., 2019). Younger generations exposure to rapidly evolving technology in the last three decades could lessen their fear of new technology and result in quicker acceptance.

I believe the trepidation and instances of outward animosity from the public are visceral reactions related to the typical human instinct to fear the unknown. Media outlets are quick to take advantage of this fear by highlighting malfunctions and collisions involving CADS without a full explanation or understanding of the technology. This inadvertently magnifies uncommon occurrences into epidemic proportions in the eyes of those already distrustful of the technology. The perception of CADS is very different than the reality of this technology as it stands now. There is circulating misinformation about how CADS work, the full capabilities of their features, and how quickly this technology will be deployed to everyday consumers. As with any advancement or change that removes control from the individual, there will naturally be questions, hesitation, and distrust. The general public isn’t aware of what I and others working in traffic safety have long known: human driving errors kills 1.3 million people in the world each year in motor vehicle crashes (ASIRT, 2018; CDC, 2017). That’s the equivalent of 48 full Airbus A380s, the largest commercial airplane, crashing each week. In comparison, five fatalities related to vehicles with autonomous technology have occurred since 2016. CADS are incapable of committing many of the errors that cause human drivers to crash. CADS cannot become impaired by alcohol or drugs, feel anger  or fatigue that causes them to drive recklessly, and are designed to obey all traffic laws and not speed. But it is not enough for those in the automotive industry to talk about what CADS have the potential to do. They must show people by continuing to put this technology out there to interact with consumers and letting the data speak for itself. In my opinion, any innovation that works to reduce unnecessary deaths is worth tireless exploration, 1.3 million times over.

Aptiv Lyft

Author Testimonial: I was recently visiting Las Vegas and took advantage of the opportunity to ride in a self-driving ride-share vehicle. Aptiv, discussed in my  Testing and Tech post, has partnered with Lyft to offer autonomous ride-share services for patrons traveling up and down the Las Vegas strip. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when the vehicle came to pick up my husband and I, but I assured him that it was going to be an interesting experience. I was surprised to be greeted by not one, but two safety experts in our vehicle and was told this was standard procedure for the company. One sat in the driver’s seat, ensuring the autonomous features were operating correctly and always kept his hands close to the steering wheel in the event that manual operation became necessary. The second safety expert sat in the passenger seat and explained how the intelligent technology functions and the different features of the vehicle. I could see what looked like an iPad mounted on the dashboard of the vehicle that displayed continuous video of the traffic environment through the “eyes” of the vehicle, or the CADS. Like the image shown below, the iPad displayed images from the Aptiv vehicle’s cameras, and sensors as objects on the road are identified as other vehicles, pedestrians, and traffic signals. The image below is of a CADS in a Google self-driving car, and here, the strip of green represents the intended path of the vehicle. Objects outlined in purple are vehicles in motion, while pedestrians and cyclists are identified separately in yellow and red, respectively (Business Insider, 2015).


  1. Lin, P., Guo, R., Bialkowska-Jelinska, E., Kourtellis, A., and Y. Zhang. (2019). Development of countermeasures to effectively improve pedestrian safety in low-income areas. Journal of Traffic and Transportation Engineering, 6 (2), p. 162-174.
  2. Moody, J., Bailey, N., and Zhao, J. (2019). Public perceptions of autonomous vehicle safety: An international comparison. Safety Science,



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