Article Source: IMechE

A growing number of people think autonomous cars should be limited to low speeds, showing a potential fall in public confidence in the technology following well-publicised fatal accidents.


Almost two thirds of people would always prefer to drive themselves rather than use a self-driving vehicle, according to a new IMechE report entitled Public Perceptions: Driverless Cars.

The opinion poll also revealed that 32% of people think driverless cars should be limited to 30mph (48km/h) – up from 27% in a similar report in 2017. The same proportion of those surveyed – two thirds – said they are uncomfortable with travelling in autonomous cars.

In March 2018 Elaine Herzberg became the first pedestrian to die following a collision with a self-driving car, during Uber testing in Arizona. There have also been four fatal crashes involving Tesla Autopilot mode, two of which happened since the 2017 IMechE report.

“It is clear from these results that accidents involving autonomous vehicles that have been covered heavily in the media have influenced people’s perceptions of the safety of driverless cars,” said IMechE head of engineering Dr Jenifer Baxter to Professional Engineering. “Details of the safety of these cars in comparison to driver-operated cars does not get covered in order to present a clear picture.”

Testing must nonetheless stop after an accident, she added, to allow review of processes and new systems to be put in place. Developers cannot plan for all possible scenarios.

Despite the previous incidents, the IMechE called for increased real-world testing in the UK, on top of planned on-road testing in Edinburgh and London by 2021. The report identified areas such as business parks, airports, university campuses and potentially small towns as controlled sites for autonomous testing.

“It allows for engineers and software developers to continually learn about the vehicles’ behaviour and make adjustments,” said Dr Baxter. “It helps for people to become comfortable in a living environment with these cars as we move through the transition to a fully autonomous system. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for regulators, investors, insurers and other key stakeholders, it enables an opportunity to develop standards, regulations and policies that protect people and businesses. These test sites build an understanding of the interface between the driverless cars, us and our urban environment.”

The poll found attitudes towards autonomous technology vary significantly by gender, age and region. A third of men are reportedly comfortable about travelling in driverless vehicles, compared to less than one fifth of women.

The survey found 42% of people aged 18-24 feel confident about riding in self-driving cars, compared to 11% of people aged 75 and over.

People living in Scotland, Wales and the South West are more cautious about the technology than those in the South East and the Midlands.

“Consumer confidence is essential for autonomous technology to succeed, but, if anything, that confidence has waned in the last two years,” said IMechE chief executive Dr Colin Brown. “During that time, there have been very few controlled trials on our roads to allow people to experience the vehicles at first hand. As engineers, we remain convinced of the need to explore the potential advantages the technology offers.”

As well as increased testing, the report also recommended: “The government must accelerate the development of the regulatory framework for testing and use of autonomous cars, insurance liability, tax and revamped Highway Code to ensure clarity for road users in the near and longer term”; and “The industry and government should continue to collect data to assess driverless cars to show if the technology can deliver the safety, pollution and cost benefits it promises. These data could also be used to influence a shift from individual driver insurance towards insurance for the vehicle.”

The poll was carried out by ICM and surveyed 2,014 adults in the UK in July 2019.

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