3/14/2017 | 3 MINUTE READ

Putting Self-Driving Car Fears to Rest: Try it, You’ll Like It

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Sometimes the best way to overcome a fear is to face it head on. Experts recommend learning about what you’re afraid of, positive thinking and gradually exposing yourself to tense situations until you feel more and more comfortable. This can apply to heights, public speaking, going to the doctor or getting behind the wheel of a car.

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Sometimes the best way to overcome a fear is to face it head on. Experts recommend learning about what you’re afraid of, positive thinking and gradually exposing yourself to tense situations until you feel more and more comfortable. This can apply to heights, public speaking, going to the doctor or getting behind the wheel of a car.

But what if there’s no steering wheel or foot pedals in the car and the driver isn’t you or even human—it’s the car itself? Turns out, there’s a lot of apprehension about riding in self-driving cars and sharing the road with them. And most people have never even seen one, let alone been in an autonomous vehicle.

That’s part of the problem. While carmakers and tech companies are busy developing and testing next-generation systems to safely handle virtually anything they encounter, little is being done in terms of creating public awareness and building trust about these technologies.

The lack of public engagement is reflected in recent surveys about autonomous vehicles. A study released earlier this month by AAA found that three-fourths of U.S. drivers are afraid to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle, and a majority of respondents said sharing the road with a driverless car would make them feel less safe. The results mirror those of a similar survey conducted in 2016 by the insurance company and other recent studies in the U.S. and other markets. 

In a University of Michigan study conducted last year, two thirds of respondents said they were “moderately” or “very concerned” about riding in a self-driving vehicle. Half of those queried preferred to retain full control of their vehicle, while about two in five were okay with a partially self-driving car and just one in six wanted a fully autonomous model. Nearly everyone (95%) agreed that future cars should maintain traditional manual controls for steering, braking and throttle functions, regardless of a vehicle’s level of automation.

At the same time, the surveys suggest that people are at least open to trying some driver-assist systems, and those who experience them are much more trustful of the technologies. In this year’s AAA study, about 60% of respondents indicated they want at least one advanced driver assist feature—such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist or self-parking—in their next vehicle. More important, people who own vehicles with such features were 75% more likely to trust the technology than first-time users.

Not surprisingly, Baby Boomers are the most likely to feel afraid and less safe about self-driving cars, according to AAA. Millennials—people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s—are the most confident about such vehicles. Younger drivers also want automated technologies the most. About 70% of Millennials crave such features, compared with 54% of Generation Xers and 51% of Baby Boomers. Among drivers who want these features on their next vehicle, AAA found, the primary motivations are safety (84%), convenience (64%) and reducing stress (46%). 

In past tests conducted by Volkswagen, the carmaker found that volunteer riders who expressed doubts about self-driving cars typically became comfortable with the technology after less than 10 minutes of being exposed to it. Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute came to the same conclusion in a 2015 study involving Google prototype self-driving cars. An online survey conducted by AlixPartners last summer—after the highly publicized fatal crash involving a Tesla Model S vehicle operating in autonomous mode—found most respondents were still willing to try an autonomous vehicle, but only if the vehicle had a steering wheel they could grab to take control of the vehicle if needed.

An investigation by the National Highway Transportation Administration eventually cleared Tesla of any wrongdoing. The agency even credited the company’s AutoPilot system with helping to reduce crash rates. Likewise, AAA points out that driver assist systems make vehicles safer, more efficient and more convenient than conventionally operated models. But the organization advocates a gradual rollout of fully autonomous vehicles to ensure the technologies are reliable and safe, and that consumers are ready to accept them.

Taking a proactive approach can help allay fear of the unknown and prepare people for an autonomous future. If and when the technology is ready, it should only be as scary as the most irrational of phobias, such as snakes on a plane or being stuck in an elevator with a clown.