As Tesla gets ready to unveil its new product on October 17 which many believe will be related to some form of Autopilot hardware update, we ask the question Are Americans really ready for self-driving cars? The answer really depends on who you’re asking. Four recent polls conducted by four different organizations received wildly different results when gauging whether the general population is ready to experience autonomous driving technology.
In April, a University of Michigan poll found less than 16% of respondents were willing to ride in a self-driving car. 46% said they didn’t want any self-driving features on their own cars. Another 39% told the U of M pollsters they only want some but not all autonomous driving features. 90% reported they want the car they are riding in to have a steering wheel and pedals regardless of what level of autonomy it features.
Kelly Blue Book released results from its recent national study which polled 2,200 people between the ages of 12 and 64 to see if they’re ready to embrace advancements in self-driving technology. 80% said humans should always have the ability to take over active control of their cars while 64% reported they feel the need to be in control of their vehicle at all times. Another finding reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer said 60% of poll respondent said they know little to nothing about self-driving cars.
These results caught the attention of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and prompted the group to conduct its own poll. When 2,001 people were asked about their opinion of self-driving cars, 70% told CTA they were ready to test drive a self-driving car. Almost as many said they were interested in replacing their current ride with a car that drives itself.
How can such contrary results be explained? Perhaps a more accurate picture of people’s attitudes comes from a survey conducted face to face by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. It included both drivers and non-drivers over a wide range of ages. 36% said they were enthusiastic about self-driving cars while 18% said they had no intention of ever setting foot in one.
“My thinking on that is that as people learn more, that will sway them one way or the other,” said Johanna Zmud, a TTI research scientist who co-authored the study. “My personal opinion is that [enthusiasm is] probably going to get larger as people come to understand the benefits of the technology.”
That last statement may help explain why different surveys have such different results. It’s all in what questions are asked and how they are presented. Even experts have difficulty explaining the distinctions between the various levels of autonomy. The odds are that people taking an online survey might have an imperfect understanding of the questions they are being asked.
This may be the most important finding of all. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the CTA survey found 82% of respondents liked the idea that self driving cars could reduce injuries and deaths from drunk driving, drug use, or road rage.
One thing everyone can agree on is that awareness of self-driving technology is on the rise and the person most responsible for that is likely Tesla CEO Elon Musk. His single minded pursuit of systems that allow cars to drive themselves has made headlines ever since Autopilot was activated a year ago. Musk says one day self-driving cars will be as common as automatic elevators. That’s the kind of headline that gets people’s attention.