Self-Driving Cars: Around the Corner or Still Many Kilometers Away?

In a survey conducted in the end of 2018 about the Automotive Industry, NationMaster uncovered information regarding the American attitude toward the advent of fully autonomous, or Level 5, self-driving cars.

A survey conducted with 501 U.S respondents, uncovered that, overall, drivers are rather easily adapting themselves to the idea that self-driving cars are on the way and should be expected to begin their initial commercial availability and arrival to the roadways within just a few years.

Traditional automakers as well as tech companies such as Google and Tesla, are still competing to figure out how to design and build the most attractive and advanced Level 5 self-driving car.

Automated driving features are already in place in traditionnal cars

More than two thirds of Americans interviewed (79%) are still passionate about driving their own cars. But meanwhile, they’re gradually growing accustomed to the concept of riding in a self-driving car. This is largely due to continuously added automated driving features found in more recently manufactured cars.

Nearly half of the time, those Americans interviewed said that they’ve got automated cruise control in their cars (46% of mentions). Furthermore, their cars often have rear-view and/or side-view cameras (35% of mentions). Automatic, sensor-driven braking and collision avoidance systems (20% of mentions for each) are also a fairly common feature of modern American cars.

So, the technology actually present in cars today is opening drivers’ minds to a more general acceptance of completely automated cars. More than four out of five drivers (81% of Americans interviewed) are comfortable with their car of the future being automated, with nearly half of them desiring it to be a Level 5 AV car. However, these survey results say that they’ve grown a little more cautious and skeptical about such cars now than they have been in the recent past.

Americans remain positive despite security concerns

The caution and skepticism are well warranted, at least for the near-term, when Level 5 driverless cars, while certainly appearing to be an imminent reality, may still be much further away from mass acceptance and deployment than their advocates desire to believe. For instance, according to a piece in the widely read technophile magazine Wired, “the world is too diverse and unpredictable, the robots too expensive and temperamental, for cars to navigate all the things human drivers navigate now. Even John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo (the grown-up company that was Google’s self-driving car project), agrees, saying last year, ‘Autonomy always will have some constraints.’”

Then there’s BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, who writes: “It was on the motorway near Phoenix, Arizona, that I realised fully driverless cars might be quite a distant dream. And that was because our Google Waymo robo-taxi seemed incapable of leaving that motorway.” The robot car had been programmed never to exceed the speed limit, and because of that programming constraint couldn’t aggressively dart over to squeeze into the exit ramp lane, which was fully packed, as a human driver would have done (and been allowed to do by some other politely sympathetic human driver). Thus, the needed exit ramp was missed, and the next ramp was also missed, before the self-driving car got off the motorway.

Additionally, British transport writer Christian Wolmar warns us: “Once you set the rule that driverless cars have to effectively kowtow to any pedestrian in the street, and pedestrians begin to learn that, then the whole balance of power in our streets will change. The concept just doesn’t survive the idea of mixed use streets.”

And yet, while Wolmar fears a kind of pedestrian oppression forcing fully automated cars (presuming they have no human driver override capability) to sit idly with their riders going nowhere for big blocks of time, the potential threat to pedestrians of malfunctioning self-driving cars has, infamously, not yet been eradicated.

So, while automotive consumers maintain a positive attitude about Level 5 self-driving cars, they remain concerned about security. Over half of Americans interviewed are very positive-minded about the advent of self-driving cars (57%), and most others remain cautiously optimistic about them (45%). This overall positive attitude has remained steady throughout recent years.

American automotive consumers envision various benefits from self-driving cars. For instance, 14% of Americans interviewed stated that long-distance travels could be less tiring. Multitasking while on the move could be possible without having to catch a train or bus, which is essential for more than a tenth of consumers interviewed (11%). And if roads were shared with AVs only, they could become safer (said 11% of Americans interviewed).

Nevertheless, Americans still don’t feel that the technology is truly safe enough for mass commercial deployment. Nearly seven out of 10 Americans interviewed would not feel sufficiently safe using a driverless car (69%). Indeed, 36% of the Americans interviewed mentioned the autonomous Uber car’s braking failure alluded to above as the major AV safety concern. Another 14% of American automotive consumers interviewed said that the price of the cars is just too high to justify.

Tesla, Ford, Toyota and Google come up first in peoples’ minds

When thinking of self-driving car makers and brands, 27% of those interviewed brought up Tesla spontaneously. The other players in the game lag far behind: Ford comes top-of-mind for 7% of Americans interviewed, while Toyota is in third place (6%). Google only got mentioned top-of-mind by 4% of those interviewed.

Tech companies are more trusted to build safe AVs than traditional car makers

Self-driving cars are much more associated with technology companies than with traditional automotive makers. In fact, tech companies are still perceived as the most trustworthy for developing self-driving cars by 33% of Americans interviewed, while the traditional car manufacturers are trusted by less than a quarter of American consumers (20%). Once again, Tesla stands out most prominently (27% of mentions), even though BMW (10%) and Ford (9%) are also perceived as potential leaders in this competitive market. However, if such a traditional automotive maker does develop a Level 5 self-driving car, it should partner with a tech company to ensure its success, says the great majority of American automotive consumers (67%).

If self-driving cars were more readily available, more than half of our US respondents (57%) still would prefer to own one instead of having to use a car-sharing system (especially those living in urban areas). They feel they might be getting more used to the idea of ride-sharing and car-sharing if self-driving cars could make the experience more efficient and enjoyable.

Nevertheless, the idea of the roads being dominated by self-driving cars is still unreal for the majority of today’s transportation consumers. More than half of respondents (55%) said that they just couldn’t see AVs replacing traditional public transportation one day.

Although there are companies in the industry that are presently testing self-driving taxis and even busses, 64 % of Americans interviewed have little interest in using them at this time, with 49% stating that they’re “not at all” interested. The future of AVs probably lies mainly with privately owned cars and car-hailing systems like Uber’s and Lyft’s.

In the end, the advent of the mass deployment of Level 5 self-driving cars seems much more a question of “when”, not “if”. Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive for Nvidia, tells us that his company believes in today’s Level 2+ driving technology being merely the precursor to fully autonomous, or Level 5+, cars and other road vehicles. “Level 2+ functionality will become a must-have for every vehicle… 94% of crashes are caused by human error—that’s the harsh reality we’re facing. The industry is working toward zero accidents with the development of autonomous vehicles. Our platform utilizes AI to achieve superhuman levels of perception and performance.”