Public Understanding and Perception of Automated Vehicles, United States, 2018 – 2020

This research brief continues examining public trust in, adoption of, and concerns about different levels of automated vehicles by looking into the dynamics of these measures over time.

April 2022

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Automated vehicle (AV) technologies have gained much attention owing to a variety of potential benefits, and a large volume of studies have been conducted. However, forecasting how AV technologies will shape the future of the transportation industry and built environment remains a challenge, largely due to uncertainties about user behaviors related to AV adoption.

Many studies have reported significant heterogeneity in individuals’ attitudes and perceptions towards, and adoption of AV technologies. Further, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 may have affected public perceptions and attitudes towards AV technologies to some degree as well.

Since 2018, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has conducted annual surveys of people’s understanding of and expectations about AVs. This research brief, like previous studies, continues examining public trust in, adoption of, and concerns about different levels of AVs by looking into the dynamics of these measures from 2018 to 2020, with particular attention to 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic considerably changed people’s lifestyles, travel routines, and perceptions about public health.

Key Findings

Overall, people’s self-reported understanding of AV technologies changed little from 2018 to 2020; however, their attitudes and perceptions have become more positive and optimistic. Across all levels of AVs, people’s trust in the technologies to prevent crashes increased over time, although a statistically significant increase was found only for Level 2. Concerns about potential AV-related issues (e.g., technology malfunction and vehicle hacking) tended to decrease over the study period. More specifically:

  • Nearly 70% of respondents reported that they had a very good or excellent understanding of different levels of AV technology. These values were relatively consistent from 2018 to 2020.
  • In general, people tend to trust lower-level AVs (Levels 2 and 3) more than higher levels (Levels 4 and 5) for crash prevention, and this propensity was consistent over the three-year study period.
  • People’s perceptions regarding the effectiveness of automation in preventing crashes related to specific unsafe driving behaviors (e.g., distracted or impaired driving) or challenging driving situations (e.g., inclement weather) increased as the AV level increased. These propensities were consistent throughout the study period.
  • For AV adoption, from 2018 to 2020, about half of people constantly felt more comfortable with the prospects of owning a vehicle with no automation or lower levels of automation (Levels 1 and 2) compared with higher levels.


The data came from the Traffic Safety Culture Index, which is a national online survey carried out annually by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Using the data from 2018 through 2020 (the most recent year for which these data were available), this study conducted descriptive analyses to summarize propensities of public perceptions and attitudes. Further, a logistic regression model was performed to test whether the results were significantly different across the past three years at the 0.05 significance level, after controlling for major socio-demographic variables (gender, age, race, education, income, Census region, living area [metropolitan or non-metropolitan]) as well as frequency of driving and primary vehicle model year. All analyses included in this study have been conducted using weighted data, and results were reported on the following topics:

  • Understanding of AV levels
  • Trust in AVs for crash prevention
  • Potential concerns about AV levels
  • Perception towards effectiveness of AV technologies in preventing crashes
  • Comfort of owning an AV




Suggested Citation


Woon Kim

William J. Horrey

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety