Will Rising Fear of Self-Driving Cars Doom Autonomous Driving?

In the wake of some high-profile accidents, Americans are increasingly distrustful of self-driving cars, according to a new poll by AAA.

Of those surveyed, around 73 percent said they were “too afraid” to ride in a car entirely under software control. Some 64 percent of Millennials, routinely hailed as “digital natives” who adapt to new technologies faster than older generations, said they distrusted autonomous vehicles.

“While autonomous vehicles are being tested, there’s always a chance that they will fail or encounter a situation that challenges even the most advanced system,” Megan Foster, AAA’s director of Federal Affairs, wrote in a statement accompanying the data. “To ease fears, there must be safeguards in place to protect vehicle occupants and the motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians with whom they share the road.”

In March, one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles crashed into a pedestrian, killing her; it is believed to have been the first such fatality involving the technology. Although Uber has technicians riding behind the wheel of such vehicles, ready to hit the brakes in case the software doesn’t react to an oncoming threat, no human action was taken to avert the collision. (Uber plans to reactivate the program within a few months, supposedly.)

Tesla cars, which have an A.I.-powered “autopilot” mode, have also been involved in a series of crashes, although there’s some dispute over how much the software was to blame for each of these incidents.

If this dip in enthusiasm for self-driving cars leads companies to curtail their autonomous-driving projects, it could throw a bucket of cold water on many tech pros’ plans to get involved in the segment. Over the past few years, a number of companies have hired engineers, computer-vision experts, and other professionals to populate their growing car divisions; online-learning hubs such as Udacity even spun up courses designed to teach students the basics of autonomous-driving tech. (If you’re interested in viewing some lectures on the A.I. basis for self-driving cars, there’s this cool MIT series; there’s also the ‘Car Hacker’s Handbook,’ if you want a little DIY car programming.)

Any cooling interest could affect tech hubs such as Salt Lake City, where companies and the local government have focused increasingly on autonomous driving. “There is a great opportunity because of Utah’s tech center… to really take a lead in this area,” Representative Robert Spendlove told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this year. A proposed local bill, HB371, imposes liability and insurance rules for five different “levels” of autonomous vehicles (i.e., vehicles categorized as “Level 2,” with lane assist and smart braking, would align to different guidelines than “Level 5” cars, which are totally autonomous).

Fortunately, the technologies undergirding autonomous driving—such as the aforementioned computer vision—will remain key to many industries in the future, even if self-driving cars never become ubiquitous on the streets. And for those interested in a career involving these vehicles, don’t fear quite yet—it’s still early days for the segment.

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