Sun, Jun 18, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Human drivers afraid of handing wheel to robots

By Keith Naughton  /  Bloomberg

Davy Andrews is so adept at technology that he has become the de facto IT troubleshooter in his office.

However, there is one bit of tech he will not touch: self-driving cars.

“I wouldn’t want to be the first to jump into something with that kind of risk,” said Andrews, 33, an administrative assistant at a New York investment firm. “I would have to see enough evidence that it is safer, considerably safer. From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine getting to that point.”

Autonomous cars are advancing so rapidly that companies like Uber Technologies Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Waymo are offering robot rides to everyday consumers.

However, it turns out the traveling public might not be ready.

A survey by the American Automobile Association found that more than three-quarters of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car.

It is not just baby boomers growing increasingly fearful of giving up the wheel to a computer, a J.D. Power study shows — it is almost every generation.

“One of the greatest deterrents to progress in this field is consumer acceptance,” US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao told Bloomberg News last week at a department-sponsored conference in Detroit. “If there’s public concern about safety, security and privacy, we will be limited in our ability to help advance this technology.”

Most commuters do not have access to a self-driving car, so Chao has called on Silicon Valley to “step up” and explain how they work.

She and other regulators advocate for autonomy as a solution for curbing the hundreds of horrific collisions that happen every day in regular automobiles.

Among those that end up being fatal, 94 percent are caused by human error, according to US authorities.

People will only become comfortable with driverless cars after they ride in them, General Motors Co (GM) chief executive officer Mary Barra said this week.

The largest US automaker is testing 180 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts and ultimately plans to put them in ride-hailing fleets, though it will not say when.

“You can talk about it, but until you experience it,” self-driving cars are hard to comprehend, Barra told reporters at the GM factory building the Bolts north of Detroit. “Once you’re in the vehicle and you see the technology, you understand how it works.”

A Michigan test facility for autonomous cars is looking at opening its proving grounds to the public to promote acceptance of driverless technology, said John Maddox, president of the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

“What we’re considering in Michigan is the second Sunday or the fourth Sunday of every month, we would invite the public in and let them actually experience this technology,” Maddox told a panel of lawmakers on Wednesday. “Driving it and experiencing it is worth a thousand words and pictures.”

The opportunity for autonomy to make a meaningful impact on public safety is immense.

Last year, 40,200 people died in motor vehicle accidents on US roads, the National Safety Council estimates.

That was up 6 percent from the year before.

“Forty thousand people a year is unacceptable,” the council’s senior director of digital strategy Alex Epstein said during a panel discussion at the TU-Automotive technology conference in Detroit last week. “It’s a jumbo jet going down every couple days.”

Dangerous as it might be to operate cars themselves, many drivers are anxious about autonomous technology, because they associate it with the fragility of electronic devices.

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