Consumer interest in self-driving cars is up despite recent fatalities involving models from Uber and Tesla (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc Report , but less than half of Americans are willing to use the emerging technology, a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology survey finds.
"The key here is that this technology is an evolution, not a revolution -- this is going to take time to evolve," said researcher Bryan Reimer, who unveiled the study Wednesday at a Boston-area conference sponsored by MIT's AgeLab and the New England Motor Press Association.
MIT and NEMPA have surveyed consumers for three straight years to gauge how likely Americans are to buy self-driving vehicles, which tech companies like Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report and automakers like General Motors (GM) - Get General Motors Company (GM) Report are spending big bucks to develop. Last year's survey found only lukewarm consumer interest in the technology, with 48% saying they would never purchase a self-driving car.
But this year's poll found signs of improving support. For instance, just 33.6% of this year's roughly 3,500 survey respondents said they aren't willing to use self-driving cars. By contrast, 40.1% of survey respondents said they'd be interested in doing so, while 26.3% weren't sure.
Support also rose across all age groups except drivers older than 74. For example, 33% of 25- to 34-year-olds felt comfortable with self-driving cars, up from 20% a year ago.
"There's a much more positive outlook that what we observed a year ago despite several tragic events," Reimer said.
He called the generally rising support "phenomenal" given that MIT conducted its latest survey just days after Uber made headlines over a fatal crash involving a self-driving test car. Tesla has also had deadly crashes involving its autopilot function, in which vehicles operate themselves but humans are supposed to take over in emergencies.
Negative news stories about these accidents have been a major pothole for self-driving cars on the road to public acceptance. For example, MIT's latest poll found that among the 55.7% of respondents who said something had impacted their view of the technology in the past year, 79% cited crashes and 43% referenced the Uber fatality specifically.
But the poll also found that 58.4% of respondents said they'd use autonomous cars if they were no longer able to drive, while 64.9% would do so if auto companies make the vehicles as safe as human-driven ones.
"I do believe highly automated vehicles are the future," Reimer said. "The only question is how many years it's going to take us to get there."
(Disclosure: The author is a New England Motor Press Association member.)
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