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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  • I see autonomous vehicles as a safety feature. Just like Seat Belts and Air Bags, legislation will probably be necessary to have these features adopted en masse. Left to their own devices, drivers will adopt them only half heartedly. Everyone thinks they are a great driver and it’s the other idiots on the road that are the problem. Statistics indicate we are all flawed when it comes to driving.

    The over 60 group being skeptical is understandable, but education is necessary. At 57 I look forward to fully autonomous cars. I remember my father being talked out of driving after he kept hitting parked vehicles (thankfully no one was hurt). There will come a time also when I will be a liability on the road. Rather than become a prisoner I can continue to “drive” as long as I let the car do it. In the future Full Autonomy should be mandated when one cannot pass the drivers test. It will save many lives and provide independance and freedom to the elderly drivers.

    Drivers who have lost their license due to DUI or a medical condition could find new freedom with full autonomy. Their license could be modified for use with autonomous vehicles only. No need for a breathalyser built into the car, have the car do all the driving.

    Relinquishing control will be a very difficult thing to do for the vast majority of drivers. It may take generations for drivers to allow their cars to assume full control. Insurance incentives and legislation are the vehicles to overcoming resistance.

  • Martin Lacey

    Bring on Autonomous Vehicles (AV). I’m 50 and in 30 years or so I still want to be free to go where I want, when I want. AV will give me that ability without being a danger to myself or other road users!

  • KIMS

    I consider myself incredibly open-minded, but, it would be VERY difficult for me to put that level of trust into a ‘machine’.
    Humans are not great at evaluating risk, for many and complex reasons, and I think that will present the largest hurdle to adaptation.

    Every time you ride with a friend, you implicitly place your life in their hands. Yeah, you argue, but I know them..
    sure… but what about similar common situations: Cab driver, a hotel shuttle driver, what about them? You have no control over their shift duration, mental focus or anything else, yet it is very common for people to extend this type of trust. And yet, it will be a huge effort for most to extend the same curtsy(?) to an autopilot system.

    I think one question that would be VERY interesting to include in such studies is something along this line:

    “Would you prefer if none, some or all OTHER vehicles sharing the road with you were fully under autopilot control?”
    Using myself as a sample of 1, I too have the faulty belief that everyone else on the road is a much bigger problem than myself, so I would absolutely LOVE it if everyone else were forced to drive with full autopilot enforced… yet I would prefer manual control with assist features for myself…

    I think proper incentives (as mentioned by others), laws and TIME (showing clear safety advantages over long periods of time) will be required. Autopilot systems is nearly (but not quite) ‘there’ from a hardware and software perspective, and I think those systems will be ‘there’ within the next 5 to 10 years, but I think the human comfort with such systems on a mass scale will lag the systems themselves by 10 to 20 years… or at worst, a 30 year ‘generational’ shift.

    • Farmer_Dave

      The first time I drove my Tesla on autopilot (the day it was delivered) was, on reflection, a unique and interesting experience. I find I’ve become unused to heavy traffic since moving to a rural area, but there I was driving a brand new car in bumper-to-bumper Virginia rush hour traffic.

      During a brief break in the traffic jam I decided to engage Autopilot. Then I found myself worrying “will it stop when the car in front does”? Will it stay in what seemed to be a very narrow lane? What about curves?

      I was ready to take over any second, my foot poised above the brake pedal, my hands on the wheel.

      VERY gradually I realized that other than being unaware of stop signs and traffic signals Autopilot was doing just fine. It’s taken a couple of months of experience to now feel comfortable with it’s driving and parking abilities, and a 3,000 mile road trip truly convinced me. Even though it’s far from “autonomous”, Autopilot makes driving more relaxed.

      Count me in the group that wants selectable autonomous driving.

      • vdiv

        I was a big skeptic too, now I’m just a moderate skeptic. For drivers that have diminished or immature abilities autonomous driving will be their freedom and as we all grow older we all will appreciate what it can do for us.

  • Chris O

    I don’t understand the skepticism. Everybody nowadays owns at least one computer and does the hardware ever fail? Does the software ever let you down?

    Eh… oh wait the answer to that would be “all the time” I suppose. Maybe people fear a Microsoft/Intel type of experience; the car will get you there perfectly safe 99 times only to kill you the one hundredth…

    I could definitely see it work in the not so distant future on highways though. I’m also sure that in the complexities of the urban jungle the autopilots best feature will be the off button for a long time to come.