Psychology, not technology, may be the biggest road block to widespread adoption of self-driving cars, with nearly 80 percent of Americans reporting that they fear the idea of riding in an autonomous vehicle, according to the American Automobile Association.
A new report from UC Irvine published this week in the journal Nature Human Behavior looks at strategies to address the country’s biggest fears on the topic — most notably the idea that an autonomous vehicle could harm its passengers to save a greater number of pedestrians.
To address this situation in the minds of consumers people need to feel not only safe but socially virtuous, according to researchers. Consumers may embrace self-driving cars as a way to signal their commitment to a technology that is expected to significantly improve highway safety for all.
“The most relevant example of successful virtue consumerism is that of the Toyota Prius, a hybrid-electric automobile whose distinctive shape has allowed owners to signal their environmental commitment,” the report said. “However, whereas ‘green’ marketing can backfire for those politically unaligned with the environmental movement … autonomous vehicles … allow consumers to advertise themselves as safe, smart and pro-social.”
Researchers have widely touted the technology as a way to reduce traffic deaths, as well as make daily commutes faster, more productive and relaxing. But designing self-driving cars also raises uncomfortable ethical questions.
Unlike humans who make driving decision in a split second and therefore are considered less responsible for accidents, manufacturers of autonomous cars will have to create complex algorithms for dealing with potentially fatal situations that will no doubt be subject to significant public debate and scrutiny.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the report said, these calculations will involve “small-risk” maneuvers that passengers may never be aware of.
However, the public should be adequately prepared by elected officials and manufactures for the inevitable deaths that will result while riding in self-driving vehicles, according to the paper. Media reports could amplify people’s fears and undermine trust in the technology, especially because drivers often have an outsized perception of their own performance behind the wheel.
The public will likely be “acutely” aware of the failures of autonomous vehicles but “blissfully” oblivious to the technology’s successes, according to the report.
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