Policymakers around the world have taken a varied approach to the regulation and adoption of autonomous vehicle technology.

In the U.S., the Executive branch of government has taken a relatively hands-off approach with guidance in the “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0” document. The Legislative branch has taken a more comprehensive approach, but legislation has stalled in the both the House and Senate. U.S. States have developed a patchwork of local rules that complicate the testing and rollout of technology.   

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued advance notices of proposed rulemaking on the removal of regulatory barriers for the introduction of automated driving systems (ADSs). The NHTSA and FMCSA are seeking comments at this stage to ensure that all potential approaches are fully considered as the agencies move forward with these regulatory actions.

“One of the Department’s priorities is to prepare for the future by engaging with new technology while addressing legitimate public concerns about safety, security, and privacy, without hampering innovation,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

Those public concerns persist, as highlighted in two recent studies by a familiar automotive association, AAA, and an infrastructure solutions firm, HNTB. Both of their surveys (and others) show that rider experience and education are key to overcoming some of the negative perceptions.

A year after a number of high-profile automated vehicle incidents, American attitudes toward fully self-driving cars have not rebounded, according to AAA. Its annual automated vehicle survey found that 71% of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles, up from 63% prior to these incidents. AAA believes the key to helping consumers feel more comfortable with fully self-driving vehicles will be bridging the gap between the perception of automated vehicle technology and the reality of how it actually works in today’s cars.

“Automated vehicle technology is evolving on a very public stage and, as a result, it is affecting how consumers feel about it,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “Having the opportunity to interact with partially or fully automated vehicle technology will help remove some of the mystery for consumers and open the door for greater acceptance.”

Experience seems to play a key role in impacting how drivers feel about automated vehicle technology. Many cars on the road today are equipped with advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), which are considered the building blocks for fully self-driving vehicles. AAA’s recent survey revealed that regular interaction with ADAS components like lane keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and self-parking significantly improves consumer comfort level. On average, drivers who have one of these four ADAS technologies are about 68% more likely to trust these features than drivers who don’t have them.

According to a new HNTB America THINKS national public opinion survey, more than half of Americans (52%) believe they are familiar with or knowledgeable about autonomous vehicles. Among those familiar with autonomous vehicles, 58% believe they will be commonplace on U.S. streets and highways within 10 years. In addition, 57% of this group are willing to ride in them, and slightly more than half (51%) believe they are safer than people-driven vehicles.

“As we become more knowledgeable about, and comfortable with, autonomous vehicles, people will begin to recognize and value the economic and social benefits offered by these technologies,” said Jim Barbaresso, HNTB’s Intelligent Transportation Systems National Practice Leader and Senior Vice President. “For example, people who are disabled or elderly and unable to drive themselves will experience the freedom and convenience of mobility. Autonomous vehicles will help improve safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicles.  And they offer the promise of more effective management of roadway congestion.”

“It really comes down to trust—does the public trust automated vehicle technologies? Barbaresso said. “The level of trust will likely increase as the technologies supporting automated driving become more mature and commonplace.”

Both government and industry, along with other proponents, have a big role to play in advancing education and adoption of AVs. We collectively must focus on doing as much as we can in educating consumers and providing experiences that highlight the safety and mobility-equity potential, along with the productivity and convenience benefits that autonomous vehicle technology provides.