It’s probably the most revolutionary thing to happen in the automobile industry in a century. And apparently nobody’s interested.
Self-driving cars could change everything about transportation in America, if you believe the visionaries working on the technology. Commuting could become productive instead of wasteful. Trucks could move goods much faster, since there would be no breaks for drivers to eat or sleep. The motor-vehicle death toll would plummet.
The problem is, most drivers seem to have no interest in ever owning a car that pilots itself. A new study from the University of Michigan finds that only 15.5% of drivers say they’d want to own a fully autonomous vehicle once the technology becomes available. That’s very low, given how much publicity self-driving cars have been getting. Google (GOOGL) and Tesla (TSLA), two highly admired companies, have been promoting their research into self-driving cars for several years now, while just about every automaker is working on autonomous technology and trumpeting their own advances.
In the Michigan survey, 38.7% of drivers said they’d prefer a “partially self-driving” car, while 45.8% said they’d want no self-driving capability at all. The biggest perception problem seems to be safety, with 66.6% of drivers saying they’d be very or moderately concerned about riding in a self-driving car. Only 9.7% said they’d be unconcerned.
The research shows a huge gap in the perception of self-driving cars between the technical experts creating them and the ordinary folks who would presumably buy them. The gap doesn’t mean self-driving cars are doomed. What it does mean is that there are major misapprehensions about autonomous vehicle technology, with a lot of consumer education still required.
For one thing, self-driving technology isn’t as revolutionary as many people think. Cruise-control is self-driving technology, and most cars on the road have it. So a lot of people who say they don’t want any autonomous features may already be using them without even realizing it.
Coming next year will be a “supercruise” system from Cadillac (GM) that combines lane recognition, automatic braking and cruise control to enable the car to pilot itself in predictable situations such as stop-and-go traffic or highway travel. Other manufacturers will follow. And you’re unlikely to hear drivers complain about the car taking over these tedious behind-the-wheel duties.
Computers are also likely to be much safer drivers than humans, no matter how enamored drivers may be with their own abilities. Driver error accounts for a large portion of vehicle fatalities, even if you don’t include drugged or drunken driving. Computers are far less likely to misjudge the distance to a stoplight or the maximum safe speed around a curve, and they can’t be distracted by cellphones, French fries or wailing kids. Giving up control makes people feel less safe (Exhibit 1: airplanes), but data is almost certain to show major advances in safety once autonomous systems begin to catch on. When it’s your kid or elderly parent who might end up safer in a self-driving car, the technology will seem a lot more desirable.
Finally, automakers are very likely to retain all the features that make people feel comfortable in a car, even once they’re no longer necessary. That will help drivers get comfortable with autonomous systems. A true self-driving vehicle, for instance won’t need a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals, since these are derived from old mechanical systems that have been replaced by electronics. But all those features will still be there, because that’s what drivers expect. And motorists will be able to purchase fun, drivable cars decades after they’re unnecessary, because driving is a pastime and sport for millions of people and automakers will continue to cater to that.
Some drivers seem to be making the shift. The Michigan study found that younger drivers were far more receptive to autonomous vehicles than older ones, which is similar to comfort levels toward other types of technology. And men were slightly more receptive than women. Automakers might want to start talking up the benefits of self-driving cars, along with the cool factor.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.