Part I: Safety drives autonomous car fears, excitement

A self-driving vehicle from Waymo in California from 2017. Editorial credit: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com
CARY, N.C.  - 

The rapid advancement in (and discussion about) autonomous driving capabilities could be the rare case in the automotive retail industry where the technology is moving faster than the consumer’s willingness to adopt.

Seven years from now, there will likely be global shipments of 8 million consumer vehicles with SAE Levels 3 through 5 autonomous technology, according to an April analysis from ABI Research.

(In the ABI news release, the company describes SAE Level 3 and 4 autonomous technology as being “where drivers will still be necessary but are able to completely shift safety-critical functions to the vehicle under certain conditions,” whereas Level 5 is completely autonomous vehicles.)

Frost & Sullivan is forecasting a host of technological advancements in the autonomous vehicle sector — like virtual voice assistance, centralized domain architectures and shared mobility platforms, to name a few — to “rise” this year.

It projects that by 2023, the autonomous driving market will be a $173.15 billion industry.  

Nearly two-thirds of that figure (65.3 percent) will be from shared mobility services, Frost & Sullivan said. With autonomous driving and shared mobility coming together, the coming years could see “the convergence of e-hailing and car-sharing business models that will drive new growth opportunities and transform the mobility experience,” the company said.

“2018 is expected to be the year of L3 automated vehicles for highway use and L4 testing and implementation of autonomous vehicles for limited, controlled and well-defined scenarios,” Anirudh Venkitaraman, mobility senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said in a news release.

“In the future, customer-centric products will be at the core of innovation with artificial intelligence playing a key role, especially with customer-intuitive applications and real-time, path-planning algorithms driving new growth opportunities.”

But are U.S. consumers ready for this self-driving vehicle technology? Not quite yet, and maybe not even five or 10 years down the road.

Consumers ‘highly skeptical’ of safety

According to a survey from CarGurus released Wednesday, 79 percent of car owners said self-driving vehicles did not excite them and most say they don’t plan to own one.

Eighty-four percent of respondents either said they probably won’t or definitely won’t have an autonomous car in the next five years, CarGurus said. A decade out, there’s still 59 percent who don’t plan on having one.

Safety was the main cause of concern. But interestingly enough, safety — or perhaps the prospect for greater safety through autonomous vehicles — was also the No. 1 driver of excitement about self-driving cars in the CarGurus survey.

The survey was conducted online in April via Survey Monkey and included 1,873 adults who own vehicles.

Asked for top reasons why they are concerned about autonomous cars, 81 percent of consumers leery about self-driving cars pointed to safety, according to CarGurus. Meanwhile, 47 percent don’t believe the tech is ready. Third on the list was concern over determining fault (45 percent).

The two fatal accidents in March involving autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles — the first involving a pilot test model of an Uber autonomous vehicle and the second involving a Tesla Model X with semi-autonomous Autopilot, according to an analysis from Autolist — perhaps further raises concern in the minds of consumers. 

“Most people are still highly skeptical about the safety of autonomous vehicles, so this kind of tragedy is a huge setback,” Edmunds executive director of industry analysis Jessica Caldwell said in commentary the company shared via email in March following the first of the two tragedies.

“While developers of autonomous technology will pause and analyze what went wrong, this event could have long-term impacts on the psyche of the general public,” she said. “Automakers will not only need to re-evaluate their testing procedures to examine whether they are doing everything they can to ensure public safety, but also convince wary consumers that the benefits of this technology will outweigh the risks.” 

They may have their work cut out for them.

Most trusted maker of autonomous cars?

Through a poll of 1,326 consumers in March and April following the aforementioned fatal crashes, Autolist found that 27 percent don’t trust any company to launch autonomous vehicles.

Thirty-two percent trust Tesla, 15 percent trust Toyota and 9 percent trust General Motors, according to Autolist. Uber got the nod from 6 percent of consumers, with 2 percent trusting Volkswagen and 2 percent citing Lyft.  Less than one percent were putting their support behind Waymo.

Regarding the latter, Autolist noted: “The Autolist survey did not specify that Waymo is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet since the polling was aimed at gauging name recognition and trust. Thus, poor name recognition could have affected Waymo's low ranking.”

CarGurus found similar results.

Again, 27 percent didn’t trust anyone, but Tesla garnered the most support of anyone (24 percent), with Toyota in second place (9 percent) and GM in third (6 percent) this time around, as well.

Waymo was fifth at 5 percent.

In general, improving the comfort level of drivers with autonomous vehicles may take time.

“The data showed strong opinions and overall trepidation about self-driving cars,” Madison Gross, who is senior manager of consumer insights at CarGurus, said in a news release accompanying the analysis. 

“As is often the case with new technology, exposure seems to build comfort. Even though some early adopters are very excited about self-driving cars, the majority of the general public will need time to become more comfortable around them,” Gross said.

Feelings on autonomy vary by region, brand

When drivers who are excited about autonomous vehicles were asked why, 64 percent listed safety as a reason, according to CarGurus. Next on the list was prospects of a productive commute/travel (58 percent). Meanwhile, 54 percent were excited that the vehicle would drive for them.

By region, the West Coast had the highest level of excitement, with 26 percent saying they were looking forward to these vehicles, CarGurus said. The East Coast was at 20 percent, and the Central U.S. was at 18 percent.

Luxury owners were also more likely to consider autonomous vehicles.

By brand, BMW owners were most open to self-driving car ownerships, with between 25 percent and 30 percent likely to own one in the next decade, according to the CarGurus data. Lexus and Mercedes-Benz followed in second and third, respectively, and both were just above 20 percent.

Acura was fourth right at 20 percent.

Hyundai drivers had the greatest likelihood among owners of non-luxury makes at just below 20 percent.

The five brands whose owners were least likely to own autonomous cars in the next decade were all mainstream: GMC (5 percent), Nissan (6 percent), Jeep (8 percent), Chevrolet (10 percent) and Honda (11 percent).

CarGurus also broke down the data on car owners who were most and least likely to consider autonomous vehicles from the brand of their current ride.

Topping the list of greatest likelihood was BMW at 55 percent, followed by Buick (47 percent), Acura (44 percent), Toyota (43 percent) and Mercedes-Benz (42 percent).

Conversely, Chrysler owners were least likely at 23 percent, followed by Nissan (24 percent), Mazda and GMC (both at 26 percent), and Volkswagen (28 percent).

Delving further into the CarGurus data set, 47 percent of drivers were concerned about autonomous vehicles, with 21 percent showing excitement.

Owners of Acura vehicles were most excited, with 40 percent expressing that sentiment, followed by Hyundai (31 percent), Volkswagen (30 percent), Dodge (29 percent) and BMW (28 percent).

Mazda owners were most concerned (55 percent), followed by Mercedes-Benz (54 percent), Nissan and Kia (both 53 percent). Chevrolet, Jeep and Lexus were tied at 52 percent showing concern.

Elsewhere in the CarGurus data, concern over self-driving cars was at 41 percent among luxury owners and 48 percent for owners of mainstream brand cars.

Pickup truck owners (58 percent) expressed more concern over self-driving cars than did those who didn't own trucks (46 percent).

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