If the automotive industry thought that 2018 would be the “breakthrough” year for American consumer acceptance of autonomous vehicles (AVs), they were mistaken. Media reports on crashes involving automobiles with driverless capabilities, or technology with self-driving capabilities, resulted in multiple deaths and injuries, with several of these crashes investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.

These media reports on safety-related accidents have taken their toll on American consumer confidence in AV technology.

For example, a May 2018 American Automobile Association opinion poll found 73 percent of U.S. drivers saying they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 63 percent polled in a late 2017 survey. Later, a July 2018 public opinion poll commissioned by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found that 69 percent of American adults are concerned about their safety when sharing the roadways with AVs as motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Also, in a July 2018 internet poll undertaken by the Brookings Institute, researchers found that only 21 percent (9 percent “somewhat likely” and 12 percent “very likely”) of U.S. adults reported that they were inclined to ride in an AV, compared to 61 percent (46 percent “very unlikely” and 15 percent “somewhat unlikely”) who would not.

While these opinion poll results do not bode well for AVs in today’s political environment, it is necessary to place them in a technology perspective. The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a ranking scale to describe the six different levels of artificial intelligence for AVs. These levels are arranged as follows: Level 0 (No Automation); Level 1 (Driver Assistance); Level 2 (Partial Automation); Level 3 (Conditional Automation); Level 4 (High Automation); and Level 5 (Full Automation).

Where in the AV levels of self-driving is the automotive industry today? Early in Level 2, where under certain conditions the vehicle may take over steering, braking and acceleration — but the driver is still responsible for the overall safe operation of the vehicle. Some examples of this AV technology in commercially available vehicles include Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, Tesla Autopilot and Nissan ProPilot Assist.

At Level 2, AV self-driving technology is still a ways off from Level 4, where a vehicle can be driven by a person, but does not always need to be, as it can drive itself under the right circumstances. Thus, American consumers are not looking at any fully self-driving vehicles (Level 4) being commercially available any time in the near future (although field testing and development of AV driverless technology is now underway in regulated circumstances at the state-level).

However, their consumer apprehension is not only understandable given these media reports, but also expected. Most of today’s vehicles are at Level 1, and will have at least one vital function, such as adaptive cruise control, which the car can take over for a limited time. However, with Level 1 technologies introduced to the buying public over the last decade, this transition has allowed for consumer adjustment and AV technology improvements.

Yet the safety aspects of AV vehicles is but one among many outstanding ethical, social and environmental issues that will emerge as AV Levels increase in American society, especially to AV Level 3.

Heather M. Roff, a senior research analyst at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, released a Brookings Institute report (“The Folly of Trolleys: Ethical Challenges and Autonomous Vehicles”) in December 2018 that illustrates that ethical challenges for AV vehicles are more complex than found in the (unlikely) Trolley case, where there is “one decision to make at one point time.” As Roff, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute, points out in her superb paper:

“From a value-sensitive design standpoint, one may consider not only the question of lethal harm to passengers or bystanders, but a myriad of values like privacy, security, trust, civil and political rights, emotional well-being, environmental sustainability, beauty, social capital, fairness, and democratic values.”

Further, Roff sagaciously notes “(I)t is not whether a car ought to kill one to save five (as found in the Trolley Problem), but how the introduction of the technology will shape and change the rights, lives and benefits of all those around it.”

Not surprisingly, American consumers are not now asked their opinions on such wide-ranging, probing questions in public opinion surveys. Yet, before getting too far ahead of advanced-level AVs on American highways in the next decade, it would be prudent to heed Roff’s call for a systemic approach to adopting a new technology that has far-reaching second- and third-order ethical and socio-political consequences for American society.

From a commercial standpoint, the American automotive industry is still awaiting a comprehensive safety and liability-oriented public regulatory framework that will allow AV technology to proceed to higher commercialization levels. The gradual introduction of new AV-related technology in Level 2 and 3 over the next several years should offer adequate time to address systematically important ethical and public policy questions before the automotive industry offers commercial availability of AV Levels 4 and 5.

This systemic approach to evaluating and implementing new AV technology in American society is not only good public policy but also a good business policy for the U.S. automotive industry.  It is too early to prognosticate that the consumer bloom is permanently off the AV rose.