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Google-Backed Video Puts Viewer in a Self-Driving Car

By Published on .

Waymo 360 Experience
Waymo 360 Experience Credit: Waymo via YouTube

Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google-parent company Alphabet, is bolstering its education campaign, and its timing is pretty good: A new poll shows that a majority of Americans are still afraid to give up the wheel.

Waymo's new 360-degree video released today puts viewers in the back seat of one of its self-piloted cars. The film, by its in-house Google Creative Lab, begins by explaining how Waymo's cars use millions of laser beams per second, plus radar and high-resolution cameras to detect surroundings. Then viewers are put in the backseat of a car as it cruises along a house-lined divided highway. "The ride feels a lot like being driven in a regular car," a female voiceover smoothly intones.

A Gallup poll recently released, however, shows that plenty of Americans are still freaked out by the concept. Fifty-four percent of the U.S. respondents say they're unlikely to use self-driving cars, according to "Americans Hit the Brakes on Self-Driving Cars," which was released last week. The findings came from a larger Northeastern University/Gallup survey of Americans' attitudes on artificial intelligence. People ages 66 and older have the greatest resistance, not surprisingly, with 69 percent saying they're unlikely to to use self-driving cars. Acceptance grows the younger the generation. People ages 18 to 35 are fairly split at 36 percent likely and 41 percent unlikely.

Waymo has the most success cracking the resistance with in-person demonstrations of its vehicles, says Meiling Tan, Waymo's head of marketing. The group has logged more than 5 million miles on public roads since Google began working on the technology in 2009. The video, which will get unspecified paid digital support, is an attempt to bring the experience to a mass audience, Tan says.

Waymo has answered questions about self-driving technology in various ways, including presentations and websites, Tan says. But "we didn't want to just put that in writing and tell people, but show people and have them discover it for themselves. Because that is when it's the most engaging and impactful."

The video follows a public education campaign Waymo launched late last year called "Let's Talk Self-Driving" in partnership with organizations including Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Safety Council.

The group is running digital, outdoor and radio ads in Arizona, where Waymo last April began running an "early rider" program that gives residents a chance to use the self-driving cars, with a test driver on board, as they go about their daily commutes, shopping trips and more.

Sample ads released late last year target specific populations. For instance, one ad created with the Foundation for Blind Children states, "Because everyone wants independence." Another ad positions self-driving as a dunk driving anecdote.

Waymo and Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Waymo and Mothers Against Drunk Driving Credit: Waymo

While there's plenty of resistance to self-driving cars now, the Gallup poll cautioned that Americans have previously underestimated their acceptance of new technology. In 2000, for instance, 23 percent of people polled said they'd never get a cellphone. Mobile phones are of course virtually ubiquitous now, Gallup points out, saying "it is possible a similar pattern of adoption of self-driving vehicles may also occur."

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