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Seeing is believing: How Phoenix residents feel about self-driving tech

August 27, 2020

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It’s human nature to be apprehensive about the unknown. The less you know about something, the more daunting it may seem. For our team at Let’s Talk Self-Driving, the question was to what degree does human psychology apply to people’s perception of self-driving cars. Are people more accepting of self-driving technology in their communities when they know more about it? Based on our research, the answer is “yes.” 

On behalf of Let’s Talk Self-Driving, ALG Research recently conducted a survey of more than 200 Phoenix residents who identified as being informed about and favorable toward self-driving technology to better assess how their understanding affected their acceptance.

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Phoenix is a great case study for self-driving acceptance because companies like Waymo have been operating on local roads since 2016. Not only are Phoenix residents used to seeing self-driving vehicles, but some are active riders. In 2017, Waymo first invited Phoenix residents to participate in its Early Rider Program, and the company’s goal was to give people the first hand experience through ride-hailing so that they could learn about the technology. Phoenix is also where Waymo later launched Waymo One, its fully autonomous ride-hailing service, serving between 1,000-2,000 rides per week. And now, Phoenix residents are increasingly seeing Class 8 trucks with autonomous technology on the roads, including those in the Waymo Via fleet, dedicated to moving goods. 

Here are key findings from our recent survey:

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1. High levels of acceptance among informed individuals

Everyone in our survey results identified themselves as informed about and favorable toward self-driving technology. Nearly 3 in 4 respondents said they support having self-driving cars on local roads—higher than the acceptance rate in our survey of likely voters in 2019. Responses suggest people who have been exposed to information about self-driving cars are quite accepting of them. More than two-thirds (68%) of people surveyed had seen a self-driving vehicle on the road and 14% of respondents had been for a ride in a self-driving vehicle before. Of the residents surveyed who had not been in a self-driving vehicle before, 82% of them would be interested in taking a ride.

2. Respondents list top benefits of self-driving as safety, mobility and filling gaps in public transit

Respondents honed in on three potential benefits of self-driving technology:

  1. First, they believe fully autonomous vehicles can help people with disabilities, including the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind, get around.
  2. Next, they believe self-driving technology has the potential to save lives by reducing drunk, drugged, and distracted driving. Drunk driving is the top cause of death on American roads. Fully self-driving technology has the potential to improve road safety and reduce human error, which is a factor in an estimated 94% of crashes. 
  3. Finally, they said they believe self-driving vehicles can help fill the gaps that exist in this country’s transportation network due to urban sprawl.

3. News and social media are key information sources

How did these survey respondents learn about the promise of self-driving technology? There were no big surprises here. According to our research, local news stories were a key source. Additionally, they said they had been exposed to self-driving cars through ads on social media. This aligns with Pew Research Center data that shows three-quarters of Americans get their local news online. In addition to seeing self-driving vehicles discussed in traditional and social media settings, 68% of people surveyed had seen a self-driving vehicle on the road and 14% of respondents had been for a ride in a self-driving vehicle before.

4. Pandemic driving support for self-driving delivery services

We are living through an unprecedented global pandemic, and we were curious how respondents thought about self-driving technology as it relates to coronavirus. Survey respondents are indeed adapting their lives to the pandemic and are going out far less. While a majority of respondents (62%) said Waymo should put its services on hold because of COVID-19, an even greater portion (76%) support Waymo resuming operations for the delivery of packages and essential items.

The bottom line

Overall, it seems to hold that people who know more about self-driving technology are indeed more accepting of it. Respondents support having autonomous vehicles on local roads and seem to have a strong grasp on the potential benefits fully self-driving technology could offer.