Self-driving cars are on the way. Soon, you’ll be able to purchase a fully autonomous vehicle, jump in and leave the driving to computers. Play games, read a book or recline your seat and nap — your self-driving car will transport you safely to your journey’s end.
Autonomous driving features such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist are already included in many new vehicles, offering motorists a glimpse of what’s to come.
By 2020, the first fully autonomous vehicles are expected to deploy on America’s roadways. Consumers, however, are not all sharing the same enthusiasm owned by self-driving proponents of autonomous vehicle technology. A recent AAA survey indicates that three out of four Americans say they are “afraid” to ride in a self-driving vehicle.
Decades of Autonomous Vehicle Testing
Before we examine the AAA survey, we need to provide some history about self-driving cars.
Experiments with self-driving vehicles have been going on for decades. Beginning in the 1980s, a German researcher at a Munich university, Ernst Dickmanns, built the world’s first robotic car. This early model required human intervention to control engine throttle and braking. By 1995, Dickmanns’ team launched the first fully autonomous vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and inaugurated it on a 1,000-mile round trip from Munich to Denmark and back, including nearly 100 miles of human-free control.
That watershed mission was accomplished without incident and led to other researchers and manufacturers stepping up their own autonomous vehicle initiatives. One of the more famous driverless feats in recent years was Audi’s robotic TTS car, which ascended the 14,100-foot Pikes Peak summit in Colorado in just 27 minutes. Working with Stanford University scientists, Audi researchers explained that they weren’t trying to replace the driver, rather they want to build systems that help robotic and human drivers alike.
Although researchers may have a ground plan, AAA’s survey indicates that consumer enthusiasm isn’t particularly strong.
AAA Survey Says
In January 2016, AAA conducted 1,832 interviews of Americans across the continental U.S. for a vehicle technology survey. That survey asked consumers their thoughts about autonomous vehicles, as well as cars equipped with semi-autonomous technologies. By definition, semi-autonomous means that the driver maintains control of vehicle steering and braking, with some input from included technologies to enhance their driving experience.
Notably, AAA researchers found:
1. Nearly 75 percent of U.S. drivers said they “would be afraid to allow an autonomous vehicle to drive itself with them in it.”
2. Similarly, only 20 percent of U.S. drivers said they “would trust an autonomous vehicle to drive itself with them in it.”
3. The fear rate among motorists varies based on demographics. For instance, 81 percent of women expressed fear of riding in a self-driving car, while 67 percent were afraid of riding in a fully autonomous vehicle. Baby Boomers were more fearful than other age groups, with 82 percent saying they would be afraid. In comparison, 69 percent of younger generations shared the same fear.
Semi-Autonomous Vehicle Interest
Car manufacturers will likely take note of the fear factor when planning their technologies. While fully autonomous vehicles may scare the heck out of some drivers because of concerns like vehicle hacking, these same motorists have expressed their trust in semi-autonomous features.
The difference between the two is that semi-autonomous technology allows the driver to maintain control of the vehicle and override certain functions.
To begin, lane departure warning and lane keeping assist are commonly available on most cars today. AAA reports that some 52 percent of drivers said they trust this technology.
Furthermore, three other technologies are also available and are looked upon favorably by a significant number of motorists. Adaptive cruise control is trusted by 47 percent of U.S. drivers, while 44 percent have confidence in automatic emergency braking. Meanwhile, 36 percent of drivers trust self-parking technology.
Semi-Autonomous Vehicle Advocacy
Perhaps the key to autonomous vehicle adoption lies with those who are already intimately familiar with it. AAA has found that the trust factor increases sharply for drivers who are currently using these technologies.
Specifically, 84 percent of drivers with semi-autonomous technology trust lane departure warning and lane keep assist, while 73 percent express confidence in adaptive cruise control. Automatic emergency braking also fares well with consumers who have it, with 71 percent saying they trust the feature.
Semi-autonomous technology’s safety appeal is important to 84 percent of consumers, with 89 percent of Baby Boomers citing safety as a reason why they want it in their next vehicle. Convenience, reducing stress and wanting the latest technologies are other factors that may influence a customer’s purchase decisions. AAA discovered that 61 percent of U.S. drivers want at least one semi-autonomous vehicle technology feature when shopping for a new car.
Meanwhile, more than half of those surveyed say they don’t want the technology because they don’t know enough about it, the systems are too new and unproven, or because they are not willing to pay extra for it. Thus, educating the consumer will likely play a significant role in furthering the adoption of vehicle automation, while jointly making a case for the added cost.
Fear of Self-Driving Cars
U.S. drivers fearing that they may one day be forced to ride in a driverless car should find comfort in two truths.
First, when full driverless technology launches, only a handful of vehicles will be fully autonomous. You’ll still be able to buy other models or keep driving the car you currently own. If a friend stops by in his new driverless vehicle and invites you for a ride, you can roll your eyes or simply decline.
Second, there are influential voicing concerns about full automation, but not from a fear and loathing perspective. MIT professor David Mindell is one such expert, who says “self-driving cars should not be fully self-driving.” Mindell cites the long-promised automation of spacecraft, underwater exploration and air travel as examples where autonomous control has been pushed, yet never realized. In each example a driver or a pilot is present somewhere in the network, as the systems are imperfect.
That technological “imperfection” may be fully understood by many consumers, and shared with AAA researchers.