What Stands in the Way of Self-Driving Cars?

Google Lexus RX 450H Self-Driving Car

Source: Mark Wilson/ Getty Images

Though transportation experts and tech enthusiasts alike are enthusiastic about the idea of self-driving cars becoming the new normal, regular people have a few more reservations about the new technology, even as Daimler (DDAIF.PK), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and Nissan (NSANY.PK) develop technology aimed at making self-driving cars a practical reality.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and obtained by Vox found that a majority of respondents from the U.S., U.K., and Australia are still concerned about riding in self-driving cars. The survey found that among approximately 1,500 respondents age 18 or older, the majority had heard about self-driving cars and had “high expectations” for the technology.

But at the same time, respondents expressed “high levels of concern” about riding in self-driving cars, security issues related to the technology, and the possibility that self-driving cars might not perform as well as human drivers. Conversely, the majority also said that they wanted the technology in their own vehicle, though most were not willing to pay extra for a self-driving car. The following are some of the most interesting findings of the survey, which gained some interesting insight into what excites and scares people about the idea of self-driving cars.

People think self-driving cars would offer a lot of benefits.

UMTRI survey - benefits of self-driving cars

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

When asked about the benefits they expected to come with a shift toward self-driving cars, respondents were optimistic. Most felt that each of the benefits that the survey asked about — fewer crashes, reduced severity of crashes, improved emergency response to crashes, less traffic congestion, shorter travel time, lower vehicle emissions, better fuel economy, and lower insurance rates — was likely to occur, with the exception of less traffic congestion and shorter travel times, which most respondents said they thought were unlikely to occur.

Respondents were most confident about the benefit of better fuel economy, with 72 percent saying that benefit was likely to occur, while they were least confident about shorter travel times, with only 43 percent saying that that benefit was likely.

The benefits the survey asked about generally followed the list of benefits championed by self-driving car advocates, who say that the technology could eliminate accidents caused by alcohol, drugs, fatigue, and distraction. However, advocates also say that self-driving cars would reduce congestion, as cars could optimize the routes of owners’ regular commutes — a benefit that survey respondents weren’t particularly confident would actually occur.

Better fuel economy is a benefit on which both advocates and survey respondents are optimistic, and self-driving vehicles are expected to be smaller and more efficient in shape since the technology would reduce the risk of crashes.

But most people are still concerned about actually riding in a self-driving car.

UMTRI survey - concern with level 3 self-driving technology

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

To define what level of technology respondents were thinking about when they answered questions about self-driving cars, the survey defined the different levels of self-driving technology according to the following scale:

“Level 0. No autonomous-vehicle technology. This level also includes automated warnings only or automated secondary functions such as headlights or wipers.

Level 1. The vehicle controls one or more safety-critical functions, but each function operates independently. The driver still maintains overall control.

Level 2. This level combines two or more technologies from Level 1, and they operate in coordination with each other. The driver still maintains overall control.

Level 3. This level provides limited self-driving technology. The driver will be able to hand control of all safety-critical functions to the vehicle, and only occasional control by the driver will be required.

Level 4. Completely self-driving vehicle. The vehicle will control all safety-critical functions for the entire trip.”

The figure above charts how many survey respondents expressed concern about riding in a self-driving vehicle with level 3 technology, a car where the driver can still take control of the vehicle on occasion. While 35.5 percent of respondents were moderately concerned, and 32.8 percent slightly concerned, by the idea of riding in a car with level 3 technology, the next figure in the report shows that the amount of concern goes up dramatically when respondents are asked about their concern with riding in a car where the driver cedes all control to the vehicle, with level 4 technology.

UMTRI survey - conern with level 4 self-driving technology

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

U.S. respondents showed the highest level of concern about riding in a completely self-driving car, with 35.9 percent saying they were very concerned about the prospect and 30.9 percent saying they were moderately concerned. That’s compared to 26 percent and 31.1 percent in the U.K., and 27.9 percent and 29.5 percent in Australia.

It’s hard to know so far if the general consumer’s concern about self-driving cars will fade as the technology develops and the concept becomes more familiar. But the difference between respondents’ attitudes toward level 3 and level 4 self-driving cars demonstrates that self-driving cars are likely to face regulatory resistance, as well. Lawmakers will respond to consumers’ concern about the technology with strict regulations, which could either assuage the public’s fears or perpetuate consumers’ current attitudes toward self-driving cars.

People are just really concerned about completely self-driving vehicles.

UMTRI survey - concerns with completely self-driving vehicles

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

In addition to the prospect of riding in a self-driving vehicle meant for consumers, survey respondents were asked about other possible applications of self-driving technology, such as public transportation and commercial vehicles equipped with the technology. In addition to reporting being “very concerned” about the idea of riding in a completely self-driving vehicle in general, a majority of respondents were also very concerned about the concept of self-driving heavy or semi-trailer trucks.

In numbers almost as high, they also expressed concern about self-driving public buses and self-driving taxis, demonstrating that the technology will likely need to become much more familiar before it can be used in other applications without wide resistance.

However, people would still like to own a self-driving car, even if they don’t want to pay much extra for it.

UMTRI survey - interest in owning or leasing self-driving vehicles

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

Good news for prospective manufacturers of consumer-targeted self-driving cars is that the majority of survey respondents expressed a degree of interest in owning or leasing a car equipped with the technology. And while the most common response in the U.S., U.K., and Australia was “not at all interested,” at 34.2 percent, the initial interest still seems like a good sign for the technology once it’s readily available, since despite their concerns, a lot of people are interested in a self-driving car.

But the survey also found that most people weren’t willing to pay extra to get the technology in a car that they lease or own. Only 25 percent of respondents in the U.S. were willing to pay $2,000 extra, and only 10 percent were willing to pay $5,800. The overall percentage of respondents who said that they wouldn’t pay anything extra for a self-driving vehicle was 56.6 percent.

UMTRI survey - amount respondents would pay for self-driving technology

Source: University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

That’a potentially huge obstacle for the technology to overcome, as self-driving cars are widely expected to cost significantly more than their traditional counterparts, especially as manufacturers try to get the first iterations onto the road. Consumers may not be willing to pay the high prices that manufacturers will need to ask, especially when the technology first becomes available. Commercial buyers, like taxi services or shipping companies, could be the first major adopters of the technology, but each would need the technology to represent financial savings.

In sum, the survey suggests that the biggest obstacles in the way of adoption of self-driving technology are both the cost of the vehicles and people’s concerns about riding in them. And while consumers seem generally optimistic about the potential for self-driving cars to improve safety and fuel efficiency in theory, it looks like they’ll still need convincing that self-driving cars are a good option in practice.

And in addition to the consumers who still need convincing, lawmakers and regulators will also need to be convinced of the technology’s safety and enact regulations and standards that will make self-driving vehicles legal on the road.

The Washington Post recently reported that the U.K. will begin to test self-driving cars on public roads in 2015, and in six months will complete a full review of highway and traffic laws to prepare both for cars that are completely autonomous and those that will enable the driver to take control of the vehicle.

However, the U.K. is behind the U.S. in beginning the process of regulating self-driving vehicles. Google has been testing self-driving cars in California for years, and California, D.C., Florida, Michigan, and Nevada have all passed various bills regulating the technology, with additional legislation under consideration in Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Washington.

However, the full spectrum of regulatory issues is far from figured out in the United States, with neither laws nor technology yet really consumer-ready. It’s unclear so far who would be responsible if a crash involving a self-driving vehicle occurred, as an example. Would the person in the car be responsible? The manufacturer? And while states like California require that all self-driving vehicles enable drivers to gain control of the car, Google unveiled a prototype that doesn’t even have a steering wheel or brakes.

It’s unclear so far how strict regulations will end up being by the time that the technology is readily available to consumers, but the regulation of the technology is likely to encounter a variety of legal and political obstacles. Self-driving cars are likely to come under much stricter safety and security regulations than traditional cars, and it’s possible that a political battle will ensue as different states enact different standards. People will call for federal safety requirements, but the process of putting those in place will also be a challenge.

Standards will also need to be set for privacy and security, as self-driving cars will be able to store and share data. Stricter standards could also contribute to higher prices, which, if the University of Michigan’s survey is an indication, are already likely to be too high to appeal to most consumers, at least in the technology’s early stages.

All of this combined with a very human instinct to be scared of the new technology means that self-driving cars won’t be adopted overnight. The introduction of the technology will require changes in the way we plan our transportation systems, in the way we regulate our roads, and also in the way we think about technology and its ability to keep us safe.

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