U.S. driver interest in self-driving cars dips slightly after Tesla crash

Tesla’s technology gets huge bump in public awareness from fatal crash

U.S. driver confidence in self-driving car technology suffered only slightly in the aftermath of a Tesla Model S fatal crash that occurred with the Autopilot engaged, two new surveys revealed.

Two separate online survey results from more than 1,500 U.S. vehicle owners by consultancy AlixPartners showed consumer interest in self-driving cars dipped about three percentage points after news of the May 7 Tesla crash was reported on June 30.

Tesla Model S fatal crash Florida Highway Safety Patrol

The damage to the Tesla Model S from the impact with a semitrailer in May.

The first survey by AlixPartners of car owners aged 18 through 65, was conducted from May 30 through June 7, and the second survey was conducted from July 12 through July 20.

The surveys also found that the public's awareness of Tesla's Autopilot capabilities soared as a result of media coverage of the fatal crash.

When asked in the first survey of which self-driving cars they were aware, Google received 41% of the responses and Tesla Motors received 23.1%. In the second survey, Tesla Motors received 55.3% of the responses and Google received 19.7%.

Tesla fatal crash survey AlixPartners

When asked which industry they trust more with programming self-driving vehicles, respondents overwhelmingly (41%) chose new Silicon Valley manufacturers, such as Google and Tesla Motors over traditional Detroit carmakers, which received 16% of responses. Japanese carmakers also received more of the public's trust with 23%, while European manufacturers garnered only 8% and "neither/other" received 12%.

Tesla Motors' Autopilot technology is known as an advanced driver assistance system, which offers lane-keeping, traffic-aware cruise control and automatic braking. While only semi-autonomous, there has been a flood of anecdotal evidence that Tesla owners are using it as if it is fully autonomous, taking their hands off the wheel and performing other tasks while driving.

Survey American drivers Tesla fatal AlixPartners

In the case of the May 7 fatal crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report that confirmed the Autopilot was on and that the car was traveling nine miles over the speed limit on a four-lane divided highway.

The all-electric Tesla hit the side of an 18-wheeler that turned left in front of it. The impact sheared away the roof of the Model S and killed Joshua Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio.

Tesla stated that neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brakes were not applied.

AlixPartners' two surveys revealed car owners did lose confidence in a self-driving vehicle's ability to give control back to drivers. Ninety percent of those surveyed prior to the May 7 crash responded that they were confident that they could, at any time, take back full control of the vehicle. After the crash, only 86% responded with confidence that they could.

Another drop in confidence came when those surveyed were asked if they believed "the manufacturer of the vehicle would guarantee you that it will not cause an accident." Confidence in that statement dropped from 86% to 79%.

Tesla fatal crash survey American drivers AlixPartners

Yet another telling response came when drivers were asked if they could "text, watch a movie, surf the internet or read when in self-drive mode."

Confidence in that statement fell from 56% to 48% after the fatal accident.

The driver of the 18-wheeler involved in the Tesla Model S crash reported that Brown was watching a movie at the time of the accident, a detail that has yet to be confirmed by authorities.

Tesla Model S fatal crash NTSB

Damage to the semitrailer from the collision.

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Lucas Mearian

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