There may not be a more fabulously futuristic innovation currently in the works than the self-driving car. Despite many revolutionary changes in the history of the automobile industry, few have been as radical as removing the driver.
Ford and Uber may have poured some cold water over their plans of late, but some governments remain bullish about the technology and are committed to investing in it. This is particularly true of the UK, where the government has committed to having fully self-driving cars on public roads by 2021.
But while investor and government appetites remain strong, are consumers ready for the self-driving revolution? Here’s what we know.
Safety is a top priority.
Self-driving cars are currently in an experimental stage, with trials limited to specific areas, requiring human supervision. As such, some of the safety implications are in a grey area.
On one hand, autonomous cars could eliminate human error, drink-driving, and potentially thousands of fatalities. On the other, they could potentially cause deaths that a human driver might otherwise have prevented, with on-board computers making judgement calls on whether it’s less destructive to harm a pedestrian or passenger.
Our research reveals internet users in the UK and the U.S. are seriously ambivalent about self-driving cars.
Internet users in the UK and U.S. are virtually split down the middle between enthusiasm and concern about autonomous cars. But we can fill in some detail to the picture in breaking the data down by age.
This is likely linked to another finding from the survey. We also asked about why consumers would be concerned or excited about self-driving cars on the road. The biggest concerns across age groups were safety factors, with hacking and unexpected situations (like weather) the biggest threats cited.
But there’s a climb by age for not trusting computers with life-or-death decisions, with 37% of 16-24s worried about it, compared to 48% of 55-64s.
The other notable demographic breakdown for these feelings is gender. Men are more enthusiastic about the prospect of self-driving cars, with women tending to be more apprehensive. Our male respondents are also willing to go much further in terms of the level of autonomy they’re happy to drive with;
36% of male drivers would be willing to drive a car with “eyes off” or “minds off” autonomy (what are called “level 3” and “level 4” of autonomy respectively), compared to 27% of female drivers.
The reasons why consumers are excited about self-driving cars confirmed the importance of safety, and also how consumers see the technology as a social good, not necessarily an upgrade or add-on to cars as personal possessions.
All age groups were more likely to be excited about autonomous cars because of what they could offer society as a whole, not necessarily what it could offer them as individuals. So reducing the number of overall accidents and making driving more accessible were given as the main reasons, with more personal reasons like better fuel efficiency, better insurance deals, or easier parking, further down the list.
Consumers are unwilling to pay premium.
These philosophical conundrums are just one barrier for autonomous cars to overcome if they’re to make it to market. The other is more straightforward – cost.
At the moment, the technology needed to make an autonomous car is expensive, and gets more expensive with more autonomy in the car.
Only 10% of drivers in the U.S. would pay more than $10,000 for a self-driving car, which is quite a conservative estimate of how much more a self-driving car would cost in reality.
More of them (15%) expected to pay the same amount as a normal car, though 31% were willing to pay up to $10,000 more.
More revealingly, a quarter of drivers in both markets say they would never buy a car with self-driving technology. Between those who object to buying an autonomous car for cost reasons, and those who reject it on principle, the number of consumers who would be in the market for an autonomous car at the moment is pretty small.
If appetite is to grow, there still needs to be much education and messaging to inform and assure potential drivers.
There’s unease among passengers, not just drivers.
Seeing lines of autonomous cars on the roads is some way off yet. But a more immediate prospect is the idea of geofenced self-driving vehicles as public transport, with tests for self-driving taxis planned for this year in U.S. cities.
So it’s just as important to check in with passengers as it is with drivers.
Generally speaking, consumers are happier with autonomous technology in smaller vehicles.
More are happier to see it in taxis (38%) than they are in buses (30%) or boats (16%). Boats might sound fanciful, but Rolls-Royce has already tested a fully autonomous ferry in Finland, a country with a handy combination of tech fluency and lots of waterways.
But 3 in 10 consumers wouldn’t be comfortable with any kind of autonomous public transport, including trains and metros, which are already driverless in some cities.
Making it to market
Whether it’s in cars of their own, or in riding on public transport with self-driving technology, there’s a considerable amount of resistance among consumers at the moment.
If autonomous cars are to enter the market at scale, consumer education and assurance has to come first.
As we saw earlier, consumers are reacting to the technology as a social utility rather than the classic automobile selling points of fun and independence, so this may be a fruitful area to explore for messaging.
The next 5-10 years will likely see continued investment and testing from tech companies, automobile manufacturers, and mobility providers. But as they pump billions into self-driving technology, the’re still work to be done in converting those who will drive it, or share the road with it.