Overcoming Autonomous Vehicle Safety Concerns

ADAS remains popular but further automated driving safety moves, are still a tough sell.

By Graham Jarvis

February 2, 2024

3 Min Read
Waymo Robo-Taxi
Automakers need to pull, not push, consumers to automated technology.

It speaks volumes when an automaker decides to slash spending on its self-driving subsidiary. General Motors announced this intention in November 2023 after one of its self-driving Cruise robo-taxis dragged a pedestrian, who’d initially been hit by another human-driven vehicle, 20 ft. (6 m) down a street in San Francisco.

Accidents like this, and the well-publicized Tesla Autopilot crashes, undermine public confidence in connected and autonomous vehicles. Allegations, whether true or not, of covering up how an accident occurred won’t help the connected autonomous vehicle (CAV) cause.

Automakers must justify why people would want to use robo-taxis or even buy CAVs. Fergus McVey, CEO of 7th Sense Research, believes they are failing to do so. In fact, his company’s 2020 report, Driving the Future 02 finds not much enthusiasm for the connected autonomous vehicle concept and attitudes haven’t changed much since then. Cynicism goes across the generations, although it's greater in older generations than it is with digital natives.

Speaking about why all ages still are reluctant to embrace increasing vehicle connectivity and full autonomy, and about to what extent is safety the key concern, McVey comments: “Safety concerns are twofold: People are frightened that CAVs can go wrong, just like their phones can. The bigger the vehicle gets; the less happy people are because it would cause more damage when it goes wrong. There is underlying evidence, such as fly-by-wire accelerators not working properly. Looking at incidents per mile, then it’s currently far safer than the average human driver. Yet there is general physical safety fear, and then there is the second element of the safety of your data and freedom. People worry about that a lot. Some of those aspects are pretty well-founded as organizations are getting hacked and data being lost. So, how do we know people aren’t going to hack an autonomous vehicle?”

The potential threat of someone taking control is there because the vehicles are connected.

American Automobile Assn. (AAA) automotive engineering director of research, Greg Brannon, says AAA research data indicates that people’s reluctance to adopt autonomous technology comes down to not seeing it implemented safely. This includes accidents involving Tesla cars where their drivers activate Autopilot where it’s not intended. Cruise’s misfortunes don’t add any confidence.

He adds: “People are interested in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) for their vehicles but less interested in fully autonomous technologies. Consumers are fearful of the unknown, and with the number of high-profile crashes that have occurred from overreliance on current vehicle technologies, this isn’t entirely surprising.”

To overcome any CAV safety concerns, AAA wants to partner with automakers. Brannon says this would enable greater consistency across the industry, focusing on vehicle and public safety “to ensure that the entire industry is aligned.”

The key proclaimed benefit of autonomous technology is still about reducing injuries and fatalities when used safely. So, for the next five years, automakers should focus on ADAS. This technology will permit consumers to become more comfortable and educated with varying levels of autonomy.

Safety Is Hard to Sell

McVey concludes safety is hard to sell. Automotive brands have to better communicate the purpose of connected and autonomous vehicles – explaining why the vehicles need to share data, and why they need to talk with each other. That’s a dry topic to most consumers. Automakers must express why CAVs are exciting, why they are a solution to consumer issues and why they can fulfill their needs. Consumers need persuasion and evidence to want the technology rather than to merely put up with it.

Automakers and mobility providers that push autonomous driving technology without addressing what people want will fail. McVey, therefore, argues that automakers need to see if consumers like and trust the technology. Without those factors, there’s no buy-in. So, rather than pushing, automakers need to pull them toward adopting autonomous driving tech. That’s not going to occur when they see companies like Cruise allegedly behaving in the way they did following the San Francisco accident.

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