No surprise: luxury owners more likely to let autonomous cars do the driving

August 30, 2016

How excited are you about self-driving cars? According to one new study, your feelings about tomorrow's autonomous vehicles may depend on what you drive today.

The study was conducted by research firm MaritzCX, which spent much of the summer asking 12,353 vehicle owners to share their feelings about self-driving cars. Here are a few of the key findings:

  • Of those surveyed, 94 percent knew that autonomous cars were coming--which is good to hear, since people have been saying that for years.
  • Nearly 48 percent of respondents said that they weren't interested in buying a self-driving vehicle. That's also to be expected, given results from other surveys.
  • The least interested in autonomous cars were owners of Jeep and Ram vehicles. Whether that reluctance has anything to do with the high-profile hackings of Fiat Chrysler's Uconnect software isn't clear.
  • Far more intriguing is the fact that luxury car-owners--specifically owners of Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti vehicles--were the most excited about autonomous cars. Among that group, 27 percent said that they were "very interested" in buying a self-driving vehicle. (Did that have anything to do with Mercedes' recently 86ed commercial about semi-autonomous driving features in E-Class vehicles? We can't say.)
  • Performance luxury car-owners felt differently. After Jeep and Ram owners, Porsche owners were the most sour on self-driving tech, followed by BMW owners. However, even in those groups, the numbers were nearly half and half: 57 percent of Porsche owners and 56 percent of BMW owners expressed disinterest, leaving over 40 percent either undecided or excited about autonomous cars.

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When asked about the concerns they had about self-driving vehicles, respondents' answers probably lined up with many of your own:  

  • Equipment failure
  • Autonomous cars' ability to navigate safely in heavy traffic
  • Autonomous cars' ability to avoid pedestrians
  • Hacking 
  • Liability

Our take

Though the MaritzCX study doesn't necessarily contain any surprises, it does reaffirm a couple of assumptions that many of us have had for some time. For example:

  • The earliest adopters of self-driving vehicles are likely to be luxury car drivers, who've already experienced adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and other autonomous-like features in their current high-end cars.
  • The biggest selling point for manufacturers of autonomous cars isn't that they make driving less stressful or allow owners to do other things behind the wheel. It's that they make driving safer. This helps explain why MaritzCX found that comfort-oriented luxury owners were more interested in the technology than performance-oriented owners. In very broad strokes, the former group tends to prioritize getting to a destination with a minimum of fuss, while the latter often appreciates a challenge (and horsepower).

If assumptions like those prove to be correct, autonomy will likely follow the same path that other advanced safety features like collision avoidance and automated braking have followed. Namely, the first self-driving models will be luxury vehicles, and then, when the public is comfortable with the technology and when it can be produced to maximize economies of scale, it'll roll out to mass-market models.

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