Self-Driving Vehicles: Are Americans Ready to Give Up the Driver’s Seat?

Ask an industry expert and an American consumer how they expect the travel experience to change with self-driving vehicles, and you’re likely to hear two different visions of the future.

Automotive Industry experts expect the American worker will soon use a mobile app to summon a driverless car to take him to work. It will transport him through sparse traffic, and since there’s no driver, the worker will have quiet time to read a book, finish a spreadsheet, or eat his breakfast. He may even arrive early, because the likelihood of coming upon an automobile accident that backs up traffic will be slim.

After he exits, the car will leave promptly to pick up its next passenger. The rider may have a dollar or two deducted from his bank account, but with corporate subsidies, the ride could be free.

In a contrasting scenario, the American consumer envisions a somewhat different experience. His self-driving car will take him along a far-more congested roadway, one perceived to be less safe. The trip may take longer, as numerous accidents caused by a combination of autonomous vehicles and distracted drivers will increase traffic jams.

Fully automated vehicles are not yet available for commercial sale, but Google and Tesla have made headlines both for the technology and for a few accidents. These incidents, though rare, have affected consumer perceptions of the technology.

Americans may be somewhat wary of fully-autonomous vehicles, but a new survey by ReportLinker indicates they’re willing to overcome their reluctance if their concerns can be alleviated. More than 60% of surveyed Americans say they are somewhat or very positive about autonomous cars, according to the survey by ReportLinker. In fact, 82% say they would like the next car they purchase to be either fully- or partially-automated.

The American passion for automobiles and driving

One explanation for these dueling emotions may be rooted in current driving patterns. Americans cherish cars that go from zero to 60 mph in ten seconds flat, but they may not be ready to shift to a new driving paradigm as quickly.

It may be a cliché to say Americans love their automobiles, but survey data backs it up. Today, 83% of Americans say they drive their cars every day and more than half of respondents say they’re passionate about driving. More than one in four men describe themselves as highly passionate about getting behind the wheel.

But not all Americans are as passionate about cars and driving. More than 11% of younger Millennials between the ages of 18 and 24 say they don’t drive at all today. That’s up to five times the rate of older Americans. Just 67% of younger Millennials say they drive daily, a far lower rate than any other age group and a stark contrast to the driving patterns of 45-54 year olds, 91% of whom drive every day.

Safety concerns about automated cars figure prominently

But even consumers’ love of driving may not be the only obstacle that makers of automated vehicles need to overcome. Safety is a significant concern, according to ReportLinker. A majority – 63% – of consumers say they won’t feel safe in a fully-automated vehicle. When asked what they believed was the main drawback to automated vehicles, 36% cited road safety and 10% named vehicle safety. Together, this represents nearly half of all respondents. By comparison, just 18% cited the cost of acquiring the vehicle as a drawback.

Additionally, the research shows a high correlation between a consumer’s attitude toward automated vehicles and their concerns about safety. Those who express a positive attitude toward autonomous cars are more likely to feel safe in one, while those who view AVs negatively are more likely to cite road safety as the top drawback.



A gradual path to driverless car acceptance and adoption

Why do industry insiders and consumers have such wildly different safety concerns? One possibility is that consumers don’t yet have enough experience with automated features, which makes it difficult for them to shift away from the familiar driving paradigm.

Better marketing of the benefits of AVs – lower costs, less road congestion, increased mobility –is one option. But to reshape consumer perceptions, a more effective approach may be to gradually introduce automated features into existing car models. This process is already underway. Twenty automakers reached a voluntary agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to incorporate Automated Emergency Braking Systems as standard equipment in all cars by 2022.

As Americans become acclimated to automated features on traditional cars first, they may be more willing to embrace fully-automated models.

Ride-sharing services offer another way to experience AVs

Another way for consumers to experience automated vehicles is through ride-sharing services, such as Uber. The company already has invested in research and plans to deploy a fleet of autonomous vehicles by 2030. Google has also announced plans to create a new ride-sharing business using its self-driving car. These moves could accelerate acceptance of the technology.

“These potential ride-for-hire services could allow consumers to experience the technology and embrace it in a bigger way,” Thilo Koslowski, vice president and automotive practice leader at Gartner Inc. told Bloomberg. “That would help not just Google but the entire industry.”

Perhaps. But both companies face challenges. More than half of Americans, or 58%, say they are reluctant to summon a driverless taxi, ReportLinker’s survey found, and 42% of this group cited road safety as the top reason for not being willing to do so.

Once again, however, interest is divided by age. Younger Millennials express more interest in using driverless taxis or buses than older generations. According to the ReportLinker survey, 57% said they were open to using self-driving services, in stark contrast to the 35-44 year old group, 66% of whom say they have no interest.

Still, the attitudes of younger Millennials may pave the way for future growth of Automated Cars because consumers who express an interest in using driverless taxis are also more likely to be early adopters of self-driving cars. According to ReportLinker, 54% of potential users of self-driving taxis say they would purchase an AV, compared to 41% of non-users.

Automakers, technology companies and ride-sharing services are traveling down the road at high speeds toward automated vehicles. Americans may not be willing to move out of the driver’s seat quite yet, but they are certainly open to it. And as the industry gradually introduces new automated options for travel, it seems likely consumers will embrace them.

This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 605 online respondents representative of the US population. Only respondents having a driver’s license or driver’s permit were qualified to answer the survey. Interviews were conducted on September 15th.

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