February 15, 2018

Are we learning to trust self-drive vehicle technology?

In January 2018 the AAA released the findings of its latest annual survey of driver attitudes in the US. Sixty-three percent of American drivers report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. This is a significant portion of the country’s driving population – but it’s a notable decrease from the 78% of drivers who reported similar misgivings in the AAA’s previous survey released in early 2017. The change equates to 20 million more US drivers who trust riding in a self-drive vehicle.

The study findings indicate that Millennial and male drivers are the most trusting of autonomous technologies, with only half reporting they would be afraid to ride in a self-driving car.

Still, developers of autonomous vehicle technology can’t afford to be complacent. Only 13% of drivers in the AAA survey report that they would feel safer sharing the road with a self-driving vehicle, while nearly half (46%) would actually feel less safe. Others say they are indifferent (37%) or unsure (4%).

My colleague Iyad Rahwan, the AT&T Career Development Professor in the MIT Media Lab, has studied this trust issue. In a recent MIT News interview he says that trust in autonomous vehicles “will determine how widely they are adopted by consumers, and how tolerated they are by everyone else.”

In many ways we are entering new territory, Rahwan points out. Self-drive vehicles are not passive objects; they are proactive, have autonomy and are adaptive. And they can learn behaviors that may be different from the ones originally programmed for.

Several difficult challenges will have to be overcome if society is to bridge this trust gap. One is technical: how to build artificial intelligence (AI) systems capable of driving a car safely. There also are legal and regulatory questions to answer. For example, who is liable for different kinds of faults?

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