Trust in autonomous cars

    Justin Saddlemyer
    Justin Saddlemyer

    Why do consumers exhibit aversions to autonomous cars, a technology that is so likely to save lives?

    A recent survey by the AAA (American Automotive Association) found that 75% of respondents would be afraid to cede control to an autonomous car (Stepp, 2016). Such figures seem at odds with the safety that autonomous vehicles are expected to provide: A recent report by US consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates a reduction in driving fatalities by as much as 90% by mid-century (Bertoncello & Wee, 2015). Why then do consumers exhibit such aversions to a technology that is so likely to save lives?

    One possibility is that people think of autonomous cars not as carefully designed, highly sophisticated pieces of technology, but instead as mindless machines liable to get them killed. Based on this reasoning, social psychologists predicted that imbuing an autonomous car with humanlike qualities might lead people to invest greater trust in the vehicle (Waytz, Heafner, & Epley, 2014). To test this hypothesis, participants were asked to enter a driving simulator. In one condition, participants drove the simulator as they would a real car. In the other two conditions, participants were taxied around by a simulated autonomous vehicle, but with one key difference. In one of the driverless cars, the vehicle was given humanlike (or anthropomorphic) qualities, including a name (“Iris”) and a pre-recorded female voice that played at specific intervals. Then, in all three conditions, participants were then ‘struck’ by another vehicle.

    Interestingly enough, the results revealed that compared to a regular autonomous car, people perceived the anthropomorphic car to be less at fault for the accident, and even trusted the car more! What these results indicate is that when people ascribe humanlike mental qualities to a system like an autonomous car, they cease to think of it as a mindless machine, and trust it more to undertake important tasks and decisions (such as driving). While it is important not to draw broad conclusions from one isolated study, such work reflects an important deficit in the literature on autonomous cars. Given that some predictions put 21 million self-driving cars on the road by 2035 (Korosec, 2016), it is critical to understand what factors drive people’s feelings (positive and negative) towards this emerging technology.


    Bertoncello, M., & Wee, D. Ten ways autonomous driving could redefine the automotive world. McKinsey & Company, 2015. -and-assembly/our-insights/ten-ways -autonomous-driving-could-redefine-the-automotive-world

    Korosec, K. Autonomous Car Sales Will Hit 21 Million by 2035, IHS Say. Fortune, 2016.

    Stepp, E. (2016, March 1). Three-Quarters of Americans “Afraid” to Ride in a Self-Driving Vehicle. AAA Newsroom. Retrieved from

    Waytz, A., Heafner, J., & Epley, N. (2014). The mind in the machine: Anthropomorphism increases trust in an autonomous vehicle. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 113-117.

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