Here come self-driving cars? Maybe not so fast

Motorists' reluctance to embrace independently acting technology could slow acceptance of self-driving cars, according to a new survey by AAA.

Somewhat surprisingly -- given the never-ending speculation about how quickly autonomous vehicles will be swarming America's roads -- 75 percent of survey respondents said they felt afraid to ride in a self-driving car. Perhaps even more surprising, 40 percent of those surveyed are reluctant to use new technologies essential to an eventual self-driving car, such as automatic emergency braking.

Their fears may have been somewhat justified this week as a Google (GOOGL) self-driving car being tested hit a public bus. This appeared to be the first accident involving a Google car when it was in autonomous mode.

Hands off the Wheel

"With the rapid advancement toward autonomous vehicles, American drivers may be hesitant to give up full control," said John Nielsen, AAA's director of automotive engineering and repair. He noted that with the latest safety technology advances, "There are still 40 percent of Americans that are either undecided or reluctant to purchase these features."

New systems that build toward the self-driving car and are already available on many current models (usually as options) include automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control, which keeps your car a safe distance behind the vehicle ahead of you.

Analysts' projections about the future of self-driving cars tend to focus on issues of liability and insurance as the major roadblocks. But motorists' reluctance to accept the new technology could also slow down momentum.

The respondents' hesitation about new technologies involved a combination of not trusting these systems and finding them too hard to use (although most such features come into play automatically if the situation warrants). Some car owners also said they didn't want to pay extra for these options on their next vehicle.

On the other hand, drivers whose cars already have one or more of these safety systems were much more likely to endorse them.

Among those who were open to new automatic technologies, the survey showed some differences in age and gender:

  • Baby boomers most often cited safety (84 percent) as the major reason to get such technology, while millennials focused somewhat less on safety (78 percent).
  • Millennials were more likely to cite convenience and wanting the latest technology as reasons to opt for the new safety features.
  • More women (50 percent) than men (42 percent) cited reducing stress as a reason for having the latest safety features.