Autonomous or “self-driving” cars made their debut on international motorways in 2018. Even before they took to the road though, drivers had concerns about cars that drove themselves with no, or very little, driver’s interference.

Now, reality mirrors the Jetsons’ science fiction and opinions about the safety of autonomous vehicles have diversified. 

According to our survey, 53% of people feel safe crossing the road with autonomous cars on the streets. We conducted a survey that breaks that percentage down to reveal who, exactly, feels the safest, and which drivers are the wariest of their unmanned automotive companions.

Levels of car autonomy

Self-driving cars’ safety: the gender divide

Out of all the female participants who took our survey, 51% claimed that they feel safer driving on the road with autonomous cars than men. Of the male respondents, only 36% of men felt the same.

Likewise, 62% of the female respondents felt safe crossing the street with autonomous vehicles on the road as opposed to 46% of men.

That said, the participants weren’t especially keen on getting in a car with a level of autonomy that exceeded level 1. However, women in general were bolder than their male counterparts, with 58% of female respondents being ready to try them out. Amongst those, only 20% of women reported feeling comfortable driving in a car with the highest levels of autonomy.

Self-driving cars’ safety: generations matter 

The different generations also had varying opinions on the safety of autonomous vehicles. While one might expect the technology-loving millennial generation to favour driverless vehicles, 41.5% of millennial respondents didn’t believe that autonomous vehicles are safe on the roads. This doubt drove 50% of millennial respondents to claim that they anticipate avoiding the zebra crossing thanks to the influence of autonomous vehicles. 

Comparatively, Baby Boomers and Generation X both seemed confident in the safety of driverless vehicles, with 44% and 45% reporting their faith in our survey. 

Hopes and fears of autonomous cars

The questioln of morality

Distrust of autonomous vehicles stems from a similar distrust of AI and its ability to interpret and act on human morality. While 60% of survey respondents working in IT reported having faith in AI, the rest of the professional population weren’t so sure. 

Science fiction is littered with examples of malevolent AI, so why shouldn’t reality reflect that lack of benevolence?

Of the survey respondents, 58% of all participants believed that AI in autonomous cars couldn’t be taught morality. What qualifies as “morality,” however, differed between generations:

  • The majority of Baby Boomer participants (89%) believed that, in the case of an accident, autonomous cars should manoeuvre in such a way to save one person as opposed to three. Likewise, Boomers believed that the user of the car should be blamed for the crash.
  • Over half of Generation X participants (53%) believed that autonomous cars should protect as many people as they could, even if doing so puts one of the passengers at risk. The majority of this generation (64%) also blamed car manufacturers for autonomous car accidents as opposed to the user.
  • Similarly, about half of millennial participants (51%) believed that autonomous cars should save as many people as they could in the case of an accident. However, many millennial participants (8.5% as compared to 5% in Baby Boomers and 4.5% in Gen X) would blame the government for an autonomous accident.

With the definition of morality in flux, other differentiating factors began to appear. Participants who reported having fewer children were more likely to believe that the AI in these vehicles could be trusted, whereas long-time parents with more children had less faith in the morality of AI. Parents with more than four children were also more likely to be afraid of crossing the street if an autonomous vehicle was on the road.

morality of AI cars

The impact of a career

Finally, the survey was able to detect keen differences in automotive opinions down career lines:

  • Participants who are unemployed or retired projected 0% faith in autonomous vehicles’ ability to detect pedestrians.
  • Similarly, those employed in agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, military, utilities, and wholesale, put forward a vote of 0% confidence.
  • On the flip side, 55% of employees working in transportation or warehousing believe that autonomous cars can not only be trusted but that they are currently safer to operate than man-manoeuvred cars.

It makes sense that people who work most closely with vehicles would feel confident in their ability to maintain roadway safety. That said, it’s the divisions in opinion by careers that really raise eyebrows. Some of the reluctance displayed by non-technological or transport employees could be attributed to their desire to maintain their driving rights.

Most of this reluctance, though, seems to stem from a desire for autonomous vehicles to indicate that they can detect and protect pedestrians. Even those participants who reported believing that autonomous vehicles can be trusted wanted them to signal while interacting with pedestrians to indicate that the pedestrians were safe to cross the street.

The future of autonomous cars

Even with all of those diverging opinions in mind, autonomous cars seem to be an inevitable reality. The majority of individuals working in IT and computer manufacturing (60%) were among the most enthusiastic, believing that not only would these cars be seen on international motorways, but they would operate in a “more or less” moral way.

While caution is a boon to drivers and pedestrians everywhere, it does not seem like HAL resides anywhere in the motorway’s future. So long as these cars continue to be rigorously tested, it seems they’ll provide future passengers and pedestrians with a hands-free future – whether current generations are ready for it or not.

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