U.S. Drivers Seriously Starting to Sour on Autonomous Vehicles


Despite some of the world’s largest automakers promising commercially viable self-driving cars by 2020, autonomous vehicles have yet to manifest in any serious capacity. Granted, advanced driving aids have begun to usurp some amount of control from the driver. But they aren’t quite what was envisioned by the industry when everyone was a lot more optimistic about the technologies involved. This may also be true of consumers, who seem to have soured on the general premise of autonomous vehicles as they’ve started to learn all that might entail.

This seems to exist at odds with a renewed push from auto manufacturers to hype the technology. After most companies scaled back any public promotion of their AVs (blame missed deadlines, the pandemic, languishing development, legal concerns, etc.) several have started up again. Uber Freight recently announced its vision for self-driving trucks where the vehicle pilots itself on the highway while a human driver waits to take over when it comes time to navigate the side streets or pull the rig into a depot; Argo AI (backed by Ford and Volkswagen) has said it’s establishing a panel of outside experts to help oversee the safe deployment of its self-driving tech, and General Motors just said it would double its SuperCruise network to pave the way for nationwide autonomy.

And that’s just been within the last few days. Going back through the full year has shown countless other companies acting in a similar fashion. We can argue endlessly on whether this is simply a tactic to stoke the tech-obsessed Wall Street or some renewed and serious push to finally get AVs on the road. But it’s a lot harder to bicker about the public remaining interested because there’s a wealth of data to the contrary.

Greg Brannon, Director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations at the American Automobile Association (AAA), recently told a Michigan audience attending the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminar that there’s probably not even a business case for installing autonomous tech into passenger cars.

“There’s just no business case for full autonomy for individual ownership,” Brannon stated during the event. “What we’re trying to say is, let’s do a better job of the safety technologies that people can go out and purchase today, the features they really want and are willing to pay for.”

While the association is primarily a consumer advocacy organization, it has formally come out in support of pursuing self-driving technologies, it has publicly voiced concerns about the efficacy of AVs today and how the industry is attempting to implement them. This includes some of the more basic features that qualify as advanced driving aids – something the group’s own testing has shown to be wildly inconsistent.

“Even for Level 2 autonomy, there’s no standard of safety for how it’s supposed to work,” he noted. “Just because you can pass a very low bar of a standardized test for a particular system does not mean that it’s effective.”

AAA has also launched several studies to try and get a sense of what consumers actually want, with the most recent example being pretty damning. A survey of its 62 million members found that only 18 percent actually wanted comprehensive self-driving capabilities, whereas 77 said they would still like to see vehicles get safer – so that’s where the organization has placed its focus.

“[AAA has] some sway with regulators,” Brannon continued. “If we can raise the bar, it’s a good thing for safety.”

Another recent study from Pew Research revealed a similarly low interest in AVs among U.S. adults. Based on expanded data that began with a November 2021 survey focused on AI and human enhancement issues, the think tank has learned that most Americans lack faith in self-driving cars. Only about 30 percent of women say they believe self-driving cars will decrease the number of people killed or injured in traffic accidents, whereas 49 percent of men said the same. Acceptance failed to improve as the questions got more specific.

A little over half of the surveyed women expressed concerns about the prospect of having to share the road with autonomous vehicles. Men were again more accepting here. But (as with the women) a majority still said they didn’t actually like the premise of self-driving delivery trucks being on the highway. When asked whether people saw autonomous vehicles as beneficial to society overall, only 17 percent of women and 36 percent of the men surveyed said they were. A minority of both sexes also said they were likely to hop into an autonomous car if given the opportunity.

So, why hasn’t public acceptance gone up more after all these years?

While there’s no singular, glaring reason one can point to, we can certainly speculate. For starters, testing has suggested that the advanced driving aids that have quickly become standard equipment (e.g. lane keeping, adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking) on today’s cars lack consistency and may even lull motorists into a false sense of security – ultimately diminishing their skills as a driver by slowing reaction times. We’ve also compiled a wealth of anecdotal evidence on how easily these systems can be upset by poor weather conditions and lackluster road markings. The necessary sensing equipment is often fragile and ludicrously expensive to replace, too.

AVs have likewise failed to progress at the pace promised by the industry (e.g. Tesla’s Full Self Driving suite), encouraging people to doubt the technology overall. I don’t know about you, but I’ve started getting flying car vibes from companies pushing mainstream self-driving.

But the largest obstacle may involve how car companies are tweaking their respective business models. Many automakers have shown a sudden eagerness to exert new forms of control over vehicles they’ve already sold, making many uneasy about the prospect of possessing a connected vehicle that can effectively drive itself. In-car marketing is another issue and one that’s bound to grow exponentially the second individual drivers become a captive audience during their highway commute.

However, the elephant in the room is determining how AVs should be regulated and who is ultimately at fault when a vehicle crashes. If human drivers remain liable once their self-driving system fails to avoid an accident, many will view it as an unnecessary risk not worth paying for no matter how effective the system becomes. But if the onus is placed on the manufacturer, they may decide the financial and PR ramifications are just too high. This helps explain why so many businesses pivoted away from consumer-based AVs and toward commercial/fleet applications and “vehicle sharing” in recent years.

As things currently stand, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress have been pretty lax on how AVs should be regulated. There have also been ongoing disputes about how the surrounding infrastructure should be handled. Do manufacturers allow government agencies access to self-driving vehicles? Should in-car cameras be mandated to ensure drivers remain attentive? How much customer privacy can even be retained if businesses try pivoting to those aforementioned shared ownership models?

This is all ground we’ve tread before at TTAC and the fact that the industry doesn’t seem to have addressed pertinent concerns that have been around since 2013 hasn’t been terribly encouraging. While it’s hard to get concrete data on the matter, the already tepid consumer acceptance of AVs does appear to be dwindling among those residing in North America.

“The idea that the individual will someday be able to go out and buy a fully autonomous personal vehicle is probably flawed,” explained AAA’s Brannon. “If that owner doesn’t maintain it, doesn’t maintain the tires, for example, and the car crashes and kills somebody as a result, who’s liable for that?”

“It only makes sense in the fleet environment, where the fleet owner and the manufacturer can work hand in hand to make sure the technology is maintained.”

[Image: Just Dance/Shutterstock]

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