Study: Drivers growing more afraid of autonomous cars

May 23, 2016

The world is full of ironies big and small. For example:

  • Most of the planet is covered in water that we can't drink;
  • Many people prefer dogs to politicians, but euthanizing politicians remains illegal in most states; and of course,
  • Autonomous cars are the Next Big Thing, but people don't seem to want them.

That last point was made abundantly clear in a survey published last summer by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Now, the two have released data from a new survey, and if anything, the problem appears to be getting worse.

Last summer, 43.8 percent of Schoettle and Sivak's 505 respondents said that they didn't want any self-driving capability in their next cars. Nearly that many--40.6 percent--said they'd be okay with limited autonomous features, like adaptive cruise control or perhaps something akin to Tesla's Autopilot. Just 15.6 percent of those surveyed were cool with fully self-driving vehicles.

Schoettle and Sivak's follow-up study--entitled "Motorists' Preferences for Different Levels of Vehicle Automation: 2016"--polled 618 licensed drivers in the U.S. The findings suggest that motorists are slightly more averse to self-driving vehicles than they were last year.

Specifically, the number of people who want no self-driving features in their next car has risen two points to 45.8 percent. The number of those interested in partially autonomous vehicles has fallen to 38.7 percent. And as for true fans of fully self-driving vehicles, their numbers are essentially unchanged, at 15.5 percent.

Interestingly, there's been a notable shift in the number of young drivers who've expressed concern about autonomous cars. Last year, 37.5 percent of drivers age 18 to 29 said they wanted no self-driving features in their next car. This year, that figure climbed to 41.3 percent. The number of 18-to-29-year-olds who liked the idea of fully autonomous cars climbed about one point, from 17.1 percent in 2015 to 18.8 percent this year, but the gain isn't statistically significant.

Not surprisingly, older drivers are still the most averse to autonomous cars, with 56.2 percent shunning the idea. (Last year, the figure was closer to 50 percent). Women remain more wary of the technology than men, regardless of age.

Our take

In some ways, the increased resistance to autonomous vehicles that this survey suggests is to be expected. After all, as the era of self-driving cars draws near, there's likely to be more discussion of those vehicles in the media, online, around dinner tables, and at dealerships. As a result, some people who'd never given autonomous cars much thought are apt to become concerned.

We've seen that play out in the media over the past year, especially with regard to Tesla's Autopilot feature, which debuted last fall. While it's undoubtedly limited in scope, drivers have pushed Autopilot to its limits and shot more than a few viral videos like "Tesla Autopilot tried to kill me". That, in turn, caused Tesla to curb use of Autopilot.

Over time, however, it's likely that these concerns will dissipate, as software kinks get worked out and reports of autonomous car benefits begins to accrue. Maybe then, motorists will realize that the cars they've been driving for years have had autonomous features all along.

You can find an abstract of Schoettle and Sivak's report here.

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