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UK public sees some benefits in driverless cars, but caution remains

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Public Perceptions: Autonomous Vehicles
Public Perceptions: Autonomous Vehicles

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently carried out a survey to find out about public attitudes to autonomous vehicles and whether they have changed in recent years, following previous polls in 2017 and 2019.

  • Around half of drivers would be comfortable in an autonomous vehicle if they could decide when to switch to driverless mode
  • Drivers say reasons they would let the car take over driving include feeling tired or unwell
  • General support for using autonomous vehicles to improve mobility of the elderly or people with disabilities

Around half of drivers (49%) say they would feel comfortable behind the wheel of an autonomous car if they could decide when to switch to travel in driverless mode, according to a new poll “Public Perceptions: Autonomous Vehicles” from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

When asked when they would be happy for the car to take over the driving, three in ten drivers suggested they would let it take over if they felt tired (31%) or unwell (30%). 

The poll highlights how introducing driverless technology step-by-step could be key in gaining public acceptance, given that people remain cautious about the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. 

The survey into attitudes to autonomous cars is the third the Institution has run on the subject since 2017. The caution has remained consistent with around 70% of respondents in every poll saying they would not be happy being the occupant of a fully autonomous car with no human control driving at for example 70 mph (110 km). 

Matt Rooney, Head of Policy at the institution, said: 

“The public discourse around driverless cars usually focuses on fully autonomous vehicles that require no human intervention at all to get from A to B. But there are many levels of autonomy between this and complete driver control, many of which are already being used on the roads today, for example adaptive cruise control and parking assistance. It may therefore be a slow step-by-step process to get to full autonomy, rather than one leap.” 

There is some support for the idea of autonomous technology to improve the personal mobility of the elderly or people with disabilities.  

Half of respondents (50%) said fully autonomous cars autonomous cars should be available to people who have a disability or health problem which made them unable to drive.

A similar number (46%) supported cars being used by people who can no longer drive due to age.  

Concerns about the technology have remained consistent since our first poll in 2017.

Top cited concern was having no overall human control of the vehicle, followed by worries about the vehicle’s ability to react to an external event such as an accident in the road ahead. 

The Institution commissioned Walnut Unlimited to carry out a survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,013 adults across Great Britain.

Full results of our poll are available here.


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