Study Suggests Race For Self-Driving Cars May Hit A Major Roadblock: Consumer Trust, Education

In the automotive world today, there are two major disruptive technologies gaining the lion’s share of the spotlight when it comes to investment and research opportunities: electrified vehicle technology and self-driving cars.

From Nissan to GM and Tesla to Toyota, every major automaker in the world today is investing in both technologies in some way or another, either choosing to set up Silicon Valley research centers to attract software and hardware engineers away from companies like Apple and Google, or buying in technology and brainpower through corporate acquisitions. Japanese automaker Nissan is a good example of the first with a Sunnyvale, CA research facility focusing almost exclusively on autonomous vehicles, advanced active safety features and zero emissions technologies. General Motors, despite having its own west-coast research facilities, is a good example of the second, acquiring Silicon Valley startup Cruise Automation earlier this year for a reported $1 billion, only to close the company down after absorbing its technology and staff into GM’s main campuses.

Automakers may have the technology, but consumers are wary of self-driving cars.

Automakers may have the technology, but consumers are wary of self-driving cars.

Thanks to massive investment and technological advancement in the field of autonomous vehicles, we’re now starting to see cars come to market with partial autonomous driving capabilities. But while the hardware and software now exists to make autonomous driving a reality, it seems the very people who stand to benefit most — everyday consumers — aren’t ready for the switch.

Just like plug-in cars, a lack of knowledge concerning self-driving technology is threatening to slow the mass-adoption of autonomous vehicles to a trickle.

Google's goal of having cars without traditional controls isn't welcomed.

Google’s goal of having cars without traditional controls isn’t welcomed.

At least, that’s according to a new study published today from the University of Michigan, which suggests that while those under the age of 45 are more likely to have a positive attitude toward partial or fully-autonomous vehicle technology compared to those over the age of 45, an overwhelming majority of respondents from all groups wouldn’t trust their lives (or their commutes) to a self-driving car.

Moreover, it discovered that even in a fully-self-driving car, a massive 94.5 percent of all respondents, regardless of their views on self-driving cars, gender or age, would prefer to have a traditional steering wheel, accelerator and brake available to them, just in case something bad happened.

Enter ‘Motorists’ preferences for different levels of vehicle automation: 2016,’ a brand-new survey conducted by a team of researchers at the Sustainable Worldwide Transportation department of the University of Michigan. Led by senior researcher Brandon Schoettle and supervised by Michael Sivak, Ph.D., director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan, the report sought to build on existing academic work by the duo in the past few years concerning public opinion, human factors and safety-related issues involving self-driving vehicles.  Following on from an identical study carried out last year, the study also sought to see changes in opinion on autonomous vehicles — but found very little. 

As the report’s authors explain, a survey was conducted last month using popular online survey tool SurveyMonkey in which a total of 618 fully-licensed drivers over the age of 18 across the U.S. participated.  Designed to proportionally mimic the age, gender and socioeconomic demographics of the most recent U.S. Census, the survey asked participants six pre-prepared multiple-choice questions on autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars. These ranged from questions focusing on how comfortable respondents would be riding in an autonomous vehicle to how they would prefer to be notified by a self-driving car that it was time for them to take back manual control of the vehicle.

Buyers are still unwilling to trust a self-driving car.

Buyers are still unwilling to trust a self-driving car (image: University of Michigan)

Questions one, two and five are perhaps the most telling.

“Vehicle manufacturers are considering using one of three levels of automation in future vehicles. Which level would you prefer to have in your personal vehicle?” the first question asked. Just 15.5 percent said they would prefer a completely self-driving car, while 38.7 percent saying they would prefer a partially self-driving or semi-autonomous car. The overwhelming majority (45.8 percent) said they would prefer a car that had no self-driving capabilities at all.

While women were slightly more likely to prefer a manual-control (non self-driving) vehicles than men, the report’s authors say the differences between male and female was not notable. More notable was the differences between age groups, with those over the age of 60 more likely to want a completely manually-controlled vehicle than any other age group.

Interestingly too, while you might expect the youngest drivers to be more receptive to autonomous vehicles, it was actually the 30-44 age group which demonstrated the most openness to autonomy, with the majority choosing a partially-autonomous vehicle (42.6 percent) over a fully manual (35.2 percent) or fully autonomous vehicle (22.2 percent). Why? We’d guess that of the age groups represented, it’s the 30-44 age group who spend the most time behind the wheel: they’re more likely to have a younger family; have a lower-paying job than those in the 45-59 age category; and thus need to find a more affordable home further away from work as a consequence.

In short, we’d hypothesise that this particular age group are likely to have less free time and thus, are more open to the idea that autonomous vehicles could help them regain some of the time currently spent driving.

Autopilot and similar systems seems to have done little to change the mind of the public.

Autopilot and similar systems seems to have done little to change the mind of the public.

The second question asked “If the only vehicles available were completely self-driving, how concerned would you be about riding in such vehicles?” while the fifth question asked a similar question, substituting full autonomy for partial autonomy.

As you might expect from the first question, the majority of respondents expressed concern for riding in a fully autonomous vehicle, with 37.2 percent saying they were very concerned about the prospect of riding in a completely self-driving vehicle and 66.6 percent they were very or moderately concerned. Interestingly, while question one had little difference between men and women, women came out as being more concerned about riding in a completely self-driving vehicle than men, with 43 percent of women very concerned about riding in fully-autonomous vehicles versus 31.3 percent of men.

Unlike the previous question concerning what level of autonomy respondents would prefer to have in their car, it was the youngest age group (18-29) who said that they were most comfortable with the thought of a fully autonomous or partially-autonomous vehicle.

When it came to interaction with an autonomous car, the majority of respondents said that they would prefer to input routes or destinations via a touch-screen display rather than any other form of input, with voice commands coming a close second. When it came to notifying the driver that it was time to take over control of a partially-autonomous vehicle, the overwhelming majority (59.1 percent) said they would prefer a trio of warnings: visual, auditory and sensual, presumably so they didn’t miss any cues that it was time to take control of the vehicle.

Compared with results from last year, there was a slight increase in the number of people showing mistrust or fear over autonomous vehicles, but given the small sample size, both the report’s authors and we conclude that the data is reasonably consistent year on year and shows that there really is little change in consumer awareness concerning autonomous vehicles.

Those aged between 30 and 45 are most likely to want some form of autonomy in their car.

Those aged between 30 and 45 are most likely to want some form of autonomy in their car.

Why is this important? Well, in the past year, we’ve seen Tesla’s Autopilot software roll out across the world to all hardware-equipped Tesla Model S and Model X  electric cars. We’ve seen major advancements in autonomous driving technology from other major automakers like Nissan, Audi, Ford and General Motors. And Google — the company still seen by many as the leader in autonomous vehicle technology — has even launched new test fleets in Austin, Texas and Seattle, Washington. Rumors concerning Apple’s own self-driving car — codenamed Project Titan — have certainly increased in intensity too, meaning that autonomous vehicles certainly have more coverage today than they did just a year ago.

Yet despite this increased coverage, buyers remain nervous.

Self-driving cars: where electric cars were five or ten years ago?

Self-driving cars: where electric cars were five or ten years ago?

It’s a situation analogous to the introduction of mass-produced electric cars into the automotive market six years ago. After the initial wave of early adopters, the average consumer still showed a lack of knowledge or understanding of how electric cars worked or the benefits to owning one. They worried about range anxiety, finding a place to charge, battery life, and all the things that they perceived electric cars couldn’t do.

Yet with time, education and advocacy, electric cars are (slowly) becoming far more acceptable. Today, far more people say they would consider owning one than did just five years ago. Indeed, if the interest in this site is anything to go by, the unveiling of the Tesla Model 3 showed us that electric car mass adoption, while still some way off, is now far more likely than it once was, thanks to an explosion of interest.

If this new survey’s results are to be believed — and we’ve no reason to doubt them — it shows that autonomous vehicles are where electric cars were five or ten years ago.

Right now, consumers have just as many fears about autonomous vehicles as they once had about electric cars. Just as electric car advocates and automakers had to work side by side to quell those fears through education, outreach and old-fashioned test drives, so too will autonomous vehicle advocates and automakers need to do the same for autonomous vehicles to gain acceptance.

Until that education is complete, it’ll be buyers: not governments, legislators or insurance companies, holding up the advent of self-driving cars.


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