DfT survey lifts lid on widespread public fears over drones and autonomous vehicles

Written by Sam Trendall on 1 November 2018 in News

A government study has revealed that UK citizens harbour a range of concerns about emerging technologies in the transport space

A government survey of attitudes to autonomous vehicles (AV) and drones has revealed that fears about safety and privacy comfortably outweigh perceived benefits.

The study, published by the Department for Transport, shows that 82% of UK citizens believe there is at least one disadvantage to the use of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Only half (51%) feel the technology has advantages, while a little over one in three (35%) stated definitively that there are none.

Without the prompt of a list of suggestions, respondents were asked to name what advantages they saw in the use of driverless vehicles. 

The most commonly cited was improved safety or less chance of driver error, which was picked out by 20% of the 3,538 people who took the survey in June. Next on the list were increased ease of travel for elderly and disabled people, and less damage to the environment, which were both cited by 11%, and a less stressful driving experience with 10%.

Other advantages namechecked by the UK public were the ability to do other things while driving, less traffic congestion, improved fuel economy, the removal of the need for a driving licence, reduced journey times, and lower insurance and tax costs.

Biggest concerns about drones

Privacy and intrusion – 59%
Use in crime or terrorism – 28%
Airborne collisions – 25%
Competence of users – 19%
Malfunctioning – 15%


Source: Transport and Technology: Public Attitudes Tracker - DfT/Kantar Public

However, the perceived disadvantages of AVs were much more widely cited, with the risk of hardware or software failure picked out by 50% of respondents. Next on the list was the possibility that cars could fail to react to unexpected situations on 35%, and the loss of driver control on 28%. Safety concerns about interacting with human drivers was cited by 26%, as were worries about interactions with cyclists and pedestrians.

Other perceived potential drawbacks include increased complacency of drivers, complications in terms of legal liability, loss of jobs, and the ability for driverless cars to be hacked by criminals or terrorists.

A large majority – 79% – of UK citizens also harbour concerns about drones. 

By far and away the biggest worry is the potential impact on privacy, which was namechecked by 59% of survey participants. The misuse of drones for crime or terror was cited by 28%, ahead of concerns about airborne collisions on 25%, the competence of users on 19%, and equipment malfunction on 15%. 

Other stated concerns include difficulty tracing owners, excessive noise, the impact on jobs, military use of drones, and corporate spying. 

Only 15% of respondents said they had no concerns about drones.

Despite these misgivings, the study found that there is strong support for the use of the machines in certain situations. 

Biggest disadvantages of autonomous vehicles

Equipment or software failure – 50%
Failure to react to unexpected situations – 35%
Loss of driver control – 28%
Interacting with human drivers – 26%
Interacting with cyclists and pedestrians – 26%

Source: Transport and Technology: Public Attitudes Tracker - DfT/Kantar Public


A total of 84% of UK citizens would support the technology’s deployment in emergency response services, such as search and rescue. This includes 60% that would “strongly support” this usage.

Some 78% would back the use of drones in police surveillance, including 45% who would strongly support it.

Monitoring buildings or crops via drone is supported by 76% of respondents, with 58% backing the technology’s use in photojournalism or filming.

Only 41% support the use of drones for recreation, slightly more than the 36% who believe the devices should be used for package delivery and other retail needs.

The June survey was the second of six planned “waves of research” into public attitudes commissioned by the DfT. The department had commissioned consultancy Kantar Public to conduct the studies.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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