Breaking Down The Barriers Of Self-Driving Cars

By John Gerzema, CEO The Harris Poll featured in Forbes |

Imagine, if you will, Thomas Edison and Alfred P. Sloan in a hackathon. Well, venerable GM is the latest to go all-electric and has recently acquired a key sensor technology to deploy fleets of “robocars.” And with a new partnership to test self-driving cars in San Francisco, Lyft joins the auto-electric carpool with Tesla, Ford, Uber, Intel and Samsung, which has a permit for testing on California highways.

Forbes reports that over 1,700 startups aim to disrupt the automotive industry with the killer app of autonomous driving. Standing in the way of electric avenue is safety. No shortage of media attention has been placed on the technology, but what about the driver? A deeper look into our data finds that people feel unsure of letting go of the wheel because they don’t know if they can be a safe autonomous driver.

In 2016, the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that 54% of U.S. drivers felt less safe at the possibility of sharing the road with self-driving cars and 78% said they would be afraid of riding in a self-driving car.

In a recent Harris Poll, nearly half of Americans (48%) already think self-driving car technology is safe. And more than a third (35%) see it as the future of driving. But a slight majority (52%) still fear for the driver’s safety, and 36% said they would never consider buying or leasing a self-driving car. This lack of confidence extends to 62% who are also fearful for pedestrians and 57% for other drivers.

Earlier this year, research from Gartner found that people just want to be in control. In the U.S. and Germany, 55% of respondents would not even ride in a fully autonomous vehicle, while the majority (70%) would be comfortable riding in a partially autonomous vehicle. Still, according to AAA, 61% of consumers want to embrace this technology in their next vehicle. It just needs to be on their terms.

Caught between the promise of convenience and a futuristic fantasy (one in five Americans think self-driving cars are “something out of a Jetsons cartoon”), people are asking: Are we a driver, a passenger or someone in-between?

Curious, we asked people to assess their perceived risk of autonomous driving with other activities where being in control isn’t entirely certain. Sixty-nine percent said riding in an autonomous car was very or somewhat risky compared to 72% who said the same about surfing and 85% who said riding a motorcycle or shark cage diving.

The irony here is that autonomous literally means self-reliant, the exact thing this amazing technology is taking away from us. And that invites anxiety of our own making. But remember, the future often looks dystopian in the present. We went back into Harris Poll history and found that in 1972, 72% of Americans felt that “people had become so dependent on gadgets and machines that we don’t know what nature is anymore.” And yet by 1996, the majority of Americans reported using a computer at home or at work and sending an average of 11 emails a week. (Hey, 1996, cherish that inbox.)

What we have in our data is a familiar tension in a new concept of adoption, namely intrigue versus trepidation. While autonomous driving is sliding down The Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it is less sci-fi and more of a real, viable mode of transportation. Americans just want to know what it means to have a seat in a car that drives itself. As it stands, only 12% of people in our survey feel that today, self-driving cars are very safe. But until handing over our keys looks OK on the actuarial tables, it will be more Minority Report than Consumer Reports.

We can assuage these social fears with an equal emphasis on the social infrastructure for autonomous driving as for the vehicle technology itself. This means innovation in highway traffic management, self-driving schools, sensors, maybe even new classifications of driver licenses. The possibilities to remake our lives (and save lives) is right in front of us. As the automotive industry has always done, just make us believe we can be the Steve McQueen of the 21st century.