Who is most anxious about self-driving cars?

As self-driving cars inch closer to the mainstream, not everyone is ready to embrace the new technology. Men are far more likely than women to want to own an autonomous vehicle, and millennials are far more enthusiastic than older generations, according to a survey by personal finance website Nerdwallet.

For the skeptical women, it comes down to safety, according to the poll, which was conducted online May 12 and 13, just days after Google (GOOG) confirmed that 11 of its self-driving cars had been involved in crashes.

Of the 1,028 randomly selected Americans ages 18 and older, 55 percent of women and 37 percent of men said they were worried about self-driving cars' safety. But neither sex seems to have full confidence in the vehicles, which some experts think will appear on America's roads en masse in a matter of years. When asked if they would put a child alone in a driverless car, only 6 percent of people said yes.

What's curious about those fears, said Amy Danise, the insurance editor at Nerdwallet, is that safety is one of the manufacturers' major selling points of driverless cars. "Maybe they just don't buy it," she said of the claims that the technology will greatly cut down on accidents.

Yet while consumers may not entirely be on board with such vehicles, other industries are.

"Insurers, including State Farm, are embracing this technology," Dave Phillips, a spokesman for State Farm, said in an interview. He cited research from the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center that found driver error is responsible for about 93 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S. The research, funded in part by State Farm, argues that digitally connected and automated vehicles will result in "a dramatic improvement in crash avoidance and traffic behavior in addition to a reduction in energy consumption."

"Driverless cars will absolutely change the face of insurance," Danise said.

With all the new technology in the cars, insurers may be able to offer trip-based insurance calculated on all sorts of risk factors, including the weather, time of day, number of passengers in the car, how hard the driver brakes and other factors, she said.

"It's a can of worms," Danise added. "It can benefit some drivers and not others. It's like usage-based insurance on steroids. If you're a driver who brakes hard, drives a lot and drives at night, you should not be on user-based insurance."

A survey conducted last year by Insurance.com, a car insurance comparison-shopping site, found that 86 percent of 2,000 licensed drivers would likely consider buying a driverless car if it meant cheaper insurance as a result of improved safety.

In the Nerdwallet survey, 35 percent of the respondents said they liked the idea that self-driving cars could lead to lower insurance costs. Among the dislikes were concerns that the vehicles would be too expensive (63 percent of men/64 percent of women); unsafe (37 percent of men/55 percent of women); take the fun out of driving (44 percent of men/23 percent of women); and collect too much data about driving habits (31 percent of men/23 percent of women).

Among people over 60 years old, 44 percent said they could not think of anything appealing about driverless cars, while only 26 percent of people ages 18-29 said the same.

Phillips said the insurance industry is keeping close tabs on the developments, which are unfolding rapidly. Michigan, California, Florida, Nevada and the District of Columbia already allow the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III.)

In May, Daimler Trucks North America rolled out a self-driving big rig in Nevada. The truck is still being tested and not yet available for orders. Other major automakers testing self-driving cars include Audi, Ford, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo.

As for Google, co-founder Sergey Brin said last week that another of the company's self-driving cars was involved in a crash, the twelfth in six years. "We don't claim that the cars are going to be perfect," Brin said at the company's annual shareholders meeting. "Our goal is to beat human drivers."

Google has said none of its cars caused any crashes while in driverless mode, but public watchdog groups have criticized the company for refusing to release more information about the incidents.

The company launched a new website Friday about its self-driving cars.

  • Amy Langfield

    Amy Langfield is a freelance writer raised in California and now based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield.