Daimler CEO: Boeing safety debate highlights challenge for autonomous tech

STUTTGART (Reuters) - Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said on Tuesday the debate surrounding the safety of Boeing’s aircraft shows how hard it can be to win public acceptance for autonomous car technology.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche speaks during the China Development Forum in Beijing, China March 24, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Pool

In the wake of two plane crashes, regulators across the world have grounded the 737 MAX aircraft pending an investigation into whether Boeing’s software-based automated flight control system is safe.

“What is very important is the psychological dimension. If you look at what is happening with Boeing then you can imagine what happens when such a system has an incident,” Zetsche said, commenting on the motor industry’s efforts to develop autonomous cars.

Half of U.S. adults think self-driving vehicles are more dangerous than those driven by people, while two-thirds would not buy a fully autonomous vehicle, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found this week.

In the same poll, about 63 percent of respondents said they would not pay more to have a self-driving feature on their vehicle, and 41 percent of the rest said they would not pay more than $2,000.

Companies developing self-driving technology have put test fleets on public streets, while Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit has deployed a small fleet of self-driving vans to provide rides for customers in Arizona.

“We (in the industry) have a responsibility to educate people about the benefits and the risks of the technology,” said Chris Urmson, chief executive of self-driving cars start-up Aurora and the former head of Google’s autonomous cars project.

Accidents, including a fatality involving an Uber test vehicle in Arizona last year, have grabbed public attention and reinforced perceptions that self-driving technology is not yet ready.

Regulators for their part have yet to settle on rules applying to more futuristic self-driving cars that would be completely autonomous, not even, for example, having a steering wheel.

The auto industry should introduce autonomous systems in stages, as a way to build acceptance for complex but potentially safety-enhancing automotive technology, Zetsche said at the Auto Motor and Sport conference in Stuttgart.

“Even if autonomous cars are 10 times safer than those driven by humans, it takes one spectacular incident to make it much harder to win widespread acceptance,” he said.

Separately Zetsche said Daimler was considering introducing fuel cells to power electric buses and trucks.

Reporting by Edward Taylor; Editing by Michelle Martin, Douglas Busvine and Jan Harvey