Americans skittish about drones delivering their packages

The Washington Post

How long will it be, do you think, until companies such as Amazon start delivering packages to you by drone?

If that prospect seems fantastical to you, you’re not alone. According to a survey published this week by the U.S. Postal Service, 57 percent of people are either neutral about it or think it’s a bad idea. Seventy-five percent of people think drone delivery is five years away at best; the rest think it will take even longer, if it happens at all.

There are some good reasons to think this timeline is accurate, which we will get into below. But the survey also reveals something else: Our skepticism of the technology may be a factor. That finding, which has been expressed in policy as a relatively slow approach to drone testing, helps shed important light on how technology adoption works more broadly. Here’s how.

In its questions, the Postal Service asked respondents how they’d feel about companies such as Amazon, United Parcel Serivce and even the Postal Service itself if they decided to offer drone deliveries today, right now. And the results were unequivocal: Every brand’s reputation would suffer, suggesting there is a long way to go before drone deliveries really take off with consumers.

No matter if you’re Amazon, Google or UPS, rolling out drone delivery would result in customers’ thinking less of your company, the data show.

If these numbers are right, it suggests that some of the biggest barriers to drone delivery may actually be perceptual as much as technological.

Even if a company said its drone delivery service were ready today, people would still reject it over a perception that it was not. But the thing is, many other countries are moving ahead with drone testing in a major way, while the United States only recently gave companies the green light to begin limited tests, according to Michael Drobac, a legal expert on drones at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“What appears to be science fiction or many years off is actually happening – just not here,” Drobac said.

This gap between public receptiveness to a technology on the one hand and the actual state of the technology on the other can be found in other industries, too.

Whether it’s drones, self-driving cars or even the Internet, the less someone has heard about a technology – and the more they think of it as new or unfamiliar – the less likely it is that they will view it positively. As a person learns about the technology, the more open to it that person becomes.

With self-driving cars, studies by Kelley Blue Book and others have found that those with partly autonomous vehicles – a Tesla with autopilot, or even more basic safety features such as automatic lane-keeping and assistive cruise control – are more likely to view completely robotic cars more favorably.

“Familiarity breeds desire,” Rebecca Lindland, senior director of commercial insights at Kelley Blue Book, said in a recent interview.

It’s true that some technological and regulatory hurdles need to be overcome before drone delivery becomes a reality. For example, the U.S. government needs to draw up rules permitting companies such as Amazon to test their drones outside the visual range of the pilot – a steppingstone to true drone delivery.

But if the idea is to really take off, companies will need to convince consumers that it will actually improve their lives – or suffer a blow to their reputation.

“The usual history is people are pretty content with what they know, what they have, and adopting an innovation does take substantial effort,” said Ben Shneiderman, an expert on human-computer interaction at the University of Maryland. “The question becomes, ‘Which are innovations that may be more acceptable to people, and how might a manufacturer accelerate adoption?’”

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