NEW YORK – Recent crashes have shaken the public’s confidence in self-driving cars. And Elon Musk is promising action at Tesla after criticism from Consumer Reports.
The number of people who distrust self-driving cars rose significantly over the past year, according to a AAA poll released Tuesday.
The survey, which was conducted in April, showed that 73% of American drivers would be “too afraid” to ride in a self-driving vehicle, compared to 63% in late 2017.
Only 20% of respondents said they trust a self-driving car.
“Any incident involving an autonomous vehicle is likely to shake consumer trust, which is a critical component to the widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering and industry relations for AAA, in a statement.
Madison Gross, senior manager of customer insight for CarGurus, said that safety was a big concern for passengers.
A self-driving SUV from Uber hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March. That was the first time a self-driving car killed someone who was not in the car. Uber pulled its self-driving cars from the road, and the state of Arizona suspended testing.
In March, a Tesla Model X was in semi-autonomous “autopilot” when it crashed into a highway median in Mountain View, California, killing the driver.
Brannon, of AAA said, in a statement, that self-driving technology “holds the promise to make our roadways safer, but the industry will need to execute testing in the safest manner possible.”
Experts have said that self-driving cars are not necessarily more dangerous than human drivers — and they have the potential to eventually be safer. More than 37,000 people died on US roads in 2016, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s an increase of more than 5% from the year before, and the top causes include distracted driving, drowsiness, speeding and drunk driving.
“There are accidents every day, but there’s a magnifying glass on autonomous vehicles, because there’s a perception that they’re going to be flawless — and they’re not going to be flawless,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with AutoTrader.
Reliable statistics on the safety of self-driving cars are unavailable, since the technology is relatively new and the testing is in its early stages.
Musk promises fixes
Consumer Reports has generally been a fan of previous versions of Tesla, giving one version of the Model S, the luxury sedan, a better than perfect score. But it said Monday it couldn’t recommend the Model 3, which has a much lower starting price of about $35,000, because of problems like braking and handling.
In a series of tweets, Musk says that the Model 3 that Consumer Reports used in its review is an early version of the car that started production last summer. He said since that time, Tesla has made improvements that will give it better braking and handling.
“Consumer Reports has an early production car. Model 3 now has improved ride comfort, lower wind noise & many other small improvements. Will request that they test current production,” he tweeted late Monday night.
Musk said the firmware update for braking can be accomplished through an over-the-air download that should role out within a few days.
“With further refinement, we can improve braking distance beyond initial specs. Tesla won’t stop until Model 3 has better braking than any remotely comparable car,” he said in one tweet.
“To be clear, all Model 3 cars, including early production will have same great braking ability,” he said in another tweet. “Nature of any product, however, is that if you care about perfection, you make constant small refinements. Today’s Model S is far more refined than initial production.”
Musk is someone who doesn’t take well to criticism from the media or other people. During a recent conference call with analysts he refused to answer some questions about Model 3 production, saying that “boring, bonehead questions are not cool.” and “these questions are so dry. They’re killing me.” He has also frequently taken shots at negative news stories.
Consumer Reports issued a statement saying it would be happy to retest its car once it has been updated.