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After Uber accident, fewer people want self-driving cars

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Public support for self-driving cars has plunged in the wake of a deadly accident this spring, according to a new survey.

And young, tech-savvy consumers now express more doubts about robot vehicles.

Cox Automotive, an auto-industry services and information company, surveyed 1,250 people, following up on a similar study conducted in 2016. In those two years, public awareness of self-driving cars grew substantially, but so did distrust of the technology.

In 2016, 30 percent of the people surveyed said they would never buy a fully autonomous vehicle that didn’t give them the option to drive. Now, nearly half — 49 percent — say they won’t buy such a car.

The March accident in which a self-driving Uber car in Arizona struck and killed a pedestrian appears to have contributed both to wider awareness of the technology as well as the public’s doubts about it.

“Now they’ve got a reason to be aware, because people have actually been killed by the process of testing it,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox’s Kelley Blue Book information service. “Adoption of new technology is always tricky. Remember that air bags were supposed to save everybody from death inside the car when there’s an accident. Then we had people killed by them.”

An image made from video March 18 taken by a mounted camera shows an interior view moments before an autonomous Uber SUV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz. A Tempe police report in June said the human backup driver was streaming a television show on Hulu just before the collision.
Photo: Tempe (Ariz.) Police Department

The fatal crash of a Tesla Model X operating in Autopilot mode in Mountain View contributed to rising suspicion of robot cars among consumers, he said, but not to the same extent. Autopilot is far from self-driving — it has features like lane-keeping and automatic braking, but Tesla says drivers must pay attention and keep their hands on the wheel.

The drop in support cut across every age group, even the youngest in the survey. Among Generation Z — people born starting in the mid-1990s — support for fully autonomous cars plunged 70 percent. Only Baby Boomers showed a bigger plunge in confidence in the technology: 78 percent.

Members of Gen Z are digital natives, having never known a world without the internet. But Brauer said they’re also growing up at a time of negative headlines about technology in general, from hackers stealing Social Security numbers to the use of social media to interfere in elections.

“I think Gen Z is as much or more aware of technology than any other generation, but they’re also more aware of the failings of technology,” Brauer said. “They’ve seen the failings from the beginning.”

The survey examined how consumers feel about different levels of autonomy, and found far more comfort with systems that assist drivers rather than take total control.

The autonomous vehicle industry sorts the technology into five levels, each more sophisticated than the last. Level 1 systems, for example, include adaptive cruise control. Tesla’s Autopilot and Nissan’s Propilot Assist fall into level 2, steering cars on the highway and avoiding collisions. Level 5 represents full autonomy, with the steering wheel and brake pedal no longer needed.

In the 2016 version of the survey, most consumers expressed a preference for level 4 cars, which would be able to drive themselves in most circumstances but would still give humans the option of driving. This year, however, most respondents preferred level 2 — in other words, the driver-assist features already on the market.

“I want assistance, but I don’t want the car driving for me,” Brauer said.

That, too, may be a response to the well-publicized accidents.

Similarly, survey participants expressed reluctance to host tests of self-driving vehicles in their own cities and towns. While 75 percent said the vehicles need real-world testing, 54 percent said that testing should take place somewhere else, not where they live.

“Just like prisons and nuclear power plants, it’s now a NIMBY situation when it comes to autonomous car testing,” Brauer said.

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: dbaker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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