Tesla Autopilot crash didn't dramatically change opinions about autonomous cars

August 2, 2016

On May 7, 2016, the driver of a Tesla Model S was killed while the car was in Autopilot mode. The story has drawn massive headlines, as it's the first fatality linked to autonomous vehicle technology--technology that's set to become increasingly common on new cars. 

Many wondered if reports of the tragic incident would increase the public's skepticism of self-driving vehicles, but two studies suggest that it hasn't--at least not in a dramatic way. However, the surveys have generated other interesting data about consumers' views on autonomous technology.

Both studies were completed in July, after news of the fatal collision had become widespread, and both had a sample size of 1,500 respondents. One by AlixPartners focused exclusively on Americans; the other was carried out by Boston Consulting Group, drawing responses from the U.S., Germany, and China (three of the largest potential markets for autonomous vehicles).

Faith in autonomous tech

The AlixPartners survey showed that consumer confidence in self-driving vehicles dipped about three percentage points following the Tesla crash, which isn't statistically significant. That's not necessarily good news for autonomous car fans, though, because faith in self-driving technology was already on shaky ground.

BCG found similar results in the U.S. and Germany, where 48 percent and 41 percent of respondents, respectively, said they'd be comfortable riding in an autonomous vehicle. Those numbers were down slightly from 2015.

Among Chinese respondents, though, confidence in autonomous tech actually increased. Last year, BCG found that 75 percent of Chinese consumers would ride in self-driving vehicles; by July 2016, that figure had risen to 81 percent. 

Other measures

The AlixPartners survey yielded a couple of additional data points that we found particularly interesting.

The first probably isn't that surprising: awareness of autonomous vehicles grew in the wake of the Tesla Autopilot crash. Prior to the incident, roughly 71 to 75 percent of Americans knew about the technology. Afterwards, up to 85 percent knew about it.

Also, before the crash, more respondents (41.6 percent) knew of Google's autonomous car efforts than knew of Tesla's (23.1 percent). Afterward, those figures had reversed: considerably more said that they knew about Tesla's self-driving technology (55.3 percent) compared to Google's (19.7 percent).

But here's the kicker: the Tesla Autopilot collision on May 7 had no effect on consumers' opinions about which companies ought to be developing self-driving technology. Both before and after the incident, a consistent 41 percent said that Silicon Valley needs to do it. Japanese automakers came in a distant second (26 percent pre-crash, 23 percent post-crash), with Detroit automakers in third (17 percent pre-crash, 16 percent post).

How about you? Has the Tesla accident changed your opinions about autonomous car tech? Are you still gung-ho? Wary? Downright afraid? And assuming that self-driving cars are coming no matter what we might prefer, whom would you rather see developing the technology: tech companies, automakers, or someone else?

Sound off in the comments below.

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