Although self-driving vehicles are already on the streets of U.S. cities, the automakers and technology companies powering them still have a winding road to navigate before they reach full adoption. There have been many notable developments on autonomous vehicles over the last year, but public opinion about this emerging technology hasn’t changed significantly. Many Americans still prefer driving themselves, with more than seven in 10 saying they love being behind the wheel, according to a follow-up survey about autonomous vehicles by ReportLinker.
On the surface, this may not seem promising for automakers like Ford or technology companies such as Tesla, both of whom are investing heavily in automated technology. But there continue to be indications that Americans are willing to move out of the driver’s seat. For example, more than one in four survey respondents – and 41% of those aged 35-44 – say they’re not at all passionate about driving. What’s more, fewer Americans say they drive every day: Just 75% of respondents say they drive daily.
Another positive trend is that automation is slowly finding its way into American cars, which is likely to increase comfort levels with the technology. For example, in the latest ReportLinker survey, more than half of respondents say their vehicles have automatic cruise control and a third say they have cameras with rear or side views. Meanwhile, almost 20% say automatic braking is available on their cars. Such features pave the way to full automation. In fact, more than half of survey respondents now say they’d buy a fully automated vehicle for their next purchase, ReportLinker says, and a third would be interested in a partially automated vehicle.
Despite greater exposure to automation, however, consumer opinion of self-driving cars has remained relatively stable over the last year. Six in 10 Americans and 74% of Millennials say they’re optimistic about them, unchanged from the 2016 survey. However, for the first time, those who are passionate about driving are more likely to have a positive impression of self-driving cars, with a third expressing this sentiment. Further, 19% said they’d even consider buying a fully automated car for their next purchase.
Along gender lines, women – who wield significant influence in the majority of car purchases – are more likely than men to be willing to buy an automated car, with 59% saying they’d be interested. One explanation for this willingness is that women (70%) are less likely than men (83%) to say they drive every day.
Safety Still Tops List of Objections
To motivate consumers to buy an automated vehicle, Tesla and other companies racing to develop self-driving cars first will need to overcome perceptions about safety. Although early tests have been successful, projects are watched closely and accidents well-publicized. For example, on its first day of testing in San Francisco, a self-driving car developed by Uber and Volvo ran a red light. Last summer, a Tesla Model S equipped with a crash-avoidance Autopilot system was involved in a fatal accident.
These incidents have no doubt shaped perceptions about the safety of AV technology since ReportLinker last surveyed US consumers. The number of people who now say they would likely not use a self-driving car increased to 38%. Among women, this sentiment was even higher, with 44% saying they would not use an automated vehicle.
Further, two-thirds of Americans say they would not feel safe in a self-driving car, according to ReportLinker, and women are especially leery, with 73% worried about safety. Overall, more than a third of consumers say safety is the main drawback of autonomous vehicles.
Brands Leading the Automation Race
Yet there’s also an upside to increased coverage about AV technology: greater awareness of key players in the race to roll out the first self-driving vehicle. Tesla is the top brand that comes to mind when asked about AVs, ReportLinker found, with 16% of mentions. While consumers also named Ford (7%), Google (6%), Chevrolet (6%) and Toyota (5%), the industry has a long way to go to build awareness. Almost half (47%) of US respondents couldn’t name a single AV manufacturer without prompting.
Consumers also appear to be shifting their opinions about who is most capable of developing and introducing automated vehicles into the marketplace. Almost a third now say technology firms are likely to lead the way, about the same percentage that named traditional car companies as leaders last year. And men (38%) and Millennials (51%) are more likely to be optimistic about technology firms’ chances. Further, among those who are more optimistic about traditional car companies, 70% say the automakers should partner with technology companies.
Tesla, which has started to equip all of its vehicles with hardware that makes them fully automated, is the clear favorite for ruling the self-driving market. Nineteen percent of US consumers believe Elon Musk’s company will create the most desirable AVs. Both men (28%) and older Millennials (33%) are more likely to stand behind the technology firm.
The Road of the Future
Predictions abound about what automobile usage might look like after self-driving cars are on the road, and some have speculated that AVs could disrupt both car ownership and public transportation. But 65% of US consumers say they’d prefer to own, according to ReportLinker, while 35% say they’d rather use a self-driving vehicle through a car-sharing service such as Lyft or Uber. Thus, for both types of businesses, self-driving cars still represent growth. With consumers open to buying, auto manufacturing seems poised to benefit. Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft could see their market expand, as AVs make car-sharing services more popular – and profitable – in less crowded areas, such as the suburbs.
Likewise, it may be some time before self-driving cars fully replace public transportation options such as trains and light rail. More than half of US consumers (59%) say they don’t see this happening in the future.
In fact, interest in using self-driving buses or taxis dropped nine percentage points to 33% in the latest survey. While Millennials remain open to the idea, older generations are less likely to be interested than they were last year, with 72% saying they’re not interested, up 11% from 2016.
Still, such sentiments haven’t stalled progress. Automotive supplier Delphi recently announced a partnership with French bus and train operator Transdev to launch a self-driving on-demand transportation service for short distance commutes in Europe. They also told the WSJ that they’re looking for sites in North America to pilot the program.
So, while Americans remain on the fence about giving up the driver’s seat, both technology companies and automakers are keeping the wheels firmly on the road. If they can shift perception about safety, it seems likely they’ll be able to persuade consumers to come along for the ride.
This survey conducted by ReportLinker reached 830 online respondents representative of the US population. Interviews were conducted between June 16th and June 17th.