Americans are starting to lose some of their hesitations when it comes to cars that can drive themselves, a new AAA study released Wednesday finds.

While a majority of drivers still say they’d be afraid to ride in a self-driving car, the percentage has taken a significant drop from early last year, the national travel organization says.

In the new survey, 63% of U.S. drivers say they’re fearful of taking a spin in a fully self-driving car. A year ago, the figure was 78%. That equates to 20 million more people who are now more comfortable with the idea.

“The decline is definitely noteworthy,” says Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering for AAA, based in Orlando, Florida. The study comes as automakers and tech giant alike are rushing to develop self-driving cars. They could go on sale within five years.

Self-driving cars are safer and more efficient when they’re light-colored, industry suppliers said. USA TODAY

Brannon said motorists are more willing to trust in self-driving cars when they see the benefits of new high-tech safety gear, systems that are precursors to fully autonomous vehicles.

“There are many more vehicles on the road with advanced driver systems like automatic emergency braking or adaptive cruise control,” Brannon says. “People (who have) experience with these technologies are 75% more likely to trust them.”

AAA’s findings are based on a telephone survey of 1,004 American adults in December. The margin of error is estimated at plus or minus 3%. The results are roughly in line with other polls on the subject.

For instance, a global survey by Deloitte released earlier this month also found significantly fewer people, some 47%, believed self-driving cars would not be safe, Last year, the figure was 74%.

“My sense is that trust in autonomous vehicles is on the rise, perhaps as a result of increasing press coverage, technological advancements and accelerating development,” says Jeffery Jones, an attorney with the law firm Jones Day, who is developing a specialization around self-driving cars.

Perhaps not surprisingly, AAA found that Millennials — those in the most tech-savvy generation — have the greatest faith in cars that drive themselves. About half of Millennials said they are hesitant about self-driving cars.

When Millennials drive cars with advanced safety systems, they are more likely to embrace them, says Karl Brauer, executive publisher at Cox Automotive. “It’s this experience that converts people (into) believers,” he said.

Only 13% of drivers say they would feel safer sharing the road with a self-driving car. Some 46% say they’d feel less safe, AAA found.

Brannon says he is “surprised” that the fear numbers are so high. “There is a fear of loss of control” when a car can drive itself.

He says he has no doubts about the benefit of self-driving cars himself.

The technologies “hold the promise of reducing injuries and fatalities” in accidents, he says. “One thing we know about self-driving cars is they are not going to become distracted or intoxicated,” two leading causes of highway deaths.

Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY Published Jan. 24, 2018

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