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Consumers fear self-driving future, but like the tech that blazes the path

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Americans are afraid to ride in autonomous vehicles, but they’re far more enthusiastic about driving with the help of building-block technologies.

That’s the mixed-message takeaway from a AAA survey of consumers on their attitudes toward the influx of technology proliferating in today’s vehicles and future ones.

Only 14 percent of respondents told researchers from AAA, the nation’s largest motoring organization, they would trust a vehicle to safely drive itself. Most — 54 percent — are unsure about their feelings, while 32 percent say they’d be afraid.

Despite COVID-19-related disruptions to transportation, those results are similar to the organization’s poll last year, in which 12 percent said they’d trust a vehicle to drive. More than 4 in 10 respondents in this year’s survey said the pandemic made no difference in their interest in using self-driving vehicles as a replacement for public transportation or ride-hailing services.

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The results arrive at a time when more auto and tech companies are increasing testing of driverless vehicles — those without human safety drivers as backups — on public roads. Companies such as Motional, Cruise and Voyage have started such testing in recent months. Waymo has expanded upon ongoing driverless tests.

Those companies intend to commercialize self-driving tech in ride-hailing fleets. Autonomous vehicles that consumers purchase from traditional dealerships? Those likely won’t be available for years.

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But some of the foundational technologies — features such as lane-keeping, automated emergency braking and adaptive cruise control — are available on personally owned vehicles today. Eighty percent of drivers tell AAA they want those systems. The findings suggest consumers may find a path to acceptance of higher levels of automation through positive experiences with these driver-assistance features.

“People are ready to embrace new vehicle technology, especially if it will make driving safer,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering and industry relations. “Consumers are clear about what they want, and if automakers seize the opportunity to provide a better experience now, it will pave the way for the vehicles of tomorrow.”

AAA researchers conducted the survey in January, recording results from 1,010 consumers, with most surveyed online. The survey is the sixth annual one that AAA has conducted to gauge consumer sentiment on self-driving technology. Because of a change in methodology two years ago, the organization cautions that apples-to-apples comparisons can only be made between last year’s study and the current one.

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