Waymo is a self-driving car company created by Google. As I explained in an article last November, the company tests its self-driving cars in Chandler, Arizona — which is where I live. On average, I see two to four of these cars on the roads each day.
Waymo had announced in November that it was modifying its self-driving program. The company announced plans to pull the backup driver from behind the steering wheel and begin testing the cars with only an employee in the back seat.
I still haven’t seen one without a backup driver in the front seat, so I reached out to Waymo to inquire about this. They responded that they have been testing them without the front seat driver since November, but in a small area. Over time, that area will grow to encompass more of the Phoenix area.
I have noticed a lot more of these cars on the road at night and on weekends. A year ago I don’t recall seeing them out after dark or on the weekend, but now they are a common occurrence. When I spoke with Waymo, I asked if they had increased nighttime data gathering. I was told that they have been driving at night since the beginning of the program, but they have significantly expanded their fleet. The initial fleet was 100 cars but has now grown to 600 across all cities where testing is underway.
In the previous article, I noted some unusual observations I have made regarding these cars. Since then, I made one more.
In December, I was out walking and observed a woman riding a bike and pulling her kids behind her in a trailer. They were in the bike lane. A Waymo car came up behind them, and it didn’t seem to know what to do. It stopped behind her, and just kept slowly creeping forward. I could only guess it was because the bike trailer was an unusual object in the bike lane (and perhaps the trailer wasn’t entirely contained within the lane). The car crept behind them for more than 30 seconds before it negotiated around the bike.
AAA Finds Changing Attitudes Toward Self-Driving Cars
Following my article, a surprising number of people told me that they would never trust their safety to a self-driving car. I noticed that most of the people responding this way were older, but it made me curious about the actual statistics on opinions of self-driving vehicles.
Newly-released research from AAA has confirmed what I observed anecdotally. AAA began conducting an annual study in 2016 to document consumer attitudes toward self-driving vehicles.
In the study, AAA pursued four lines of inquiry:
- Are U.S. drivers comfortable with the idea of riding in a self-driving car?
- Are U.S. drivers comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with a self-driving car?
- Do U.S. drivers want semi-autonomous technologies in their next vehicle?
- How confident are U.S. drivers in their driving abilities?
The findings, summarized here, show that a healthy percentage of Americans still have a fear of self-driving vehicles, but those attitudes are shifting.
Some of the key takeaways from the study were:
- 63% of U.S. drivers would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, but that’s down from 78% a year ago.
- 28% of U.S. drivers would trust a self-driving car, and 9% are unsure.
- Women (73%) are more likely to be afraid than men (52%).
- Generation X (70%) and Baby Boomers (68%) are more likely to be afraid than Millennial drivers (49%).
- 46% of U.S. drivers would feel less safe sharing the road with fully self-driving cars while they drive a regular car.
My own experience on that last point is that after a while you don’t view them with much concern. These cars are still a curiosity, but I have never felt unsafe when sharing the road with one. I have observed them enough to see them take a cautious approach in uncertain situations. In fact, of the accidents that the cars have been involved in, 94% involved human error.
It’s not surprising that the younger generation would be more accepting of this new technology. I am in the minority of Generation X drivers unafraid to ride in one of these cars, but I have the benefit of having watched them for more than two years. As more of these vehicles hit the roads, I expect that widespread fear of them will continue to diminish.