Autonomous cars are getting mixed reviews. Older drivers aren’t ready to give up the wheel, while younger more technologically savvy drivers welcome the idea.
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The technology to make autonomous cars a reality may be ready, but American drivers don’t seem to be.
From smartphone-addicted teenagers to researchers designing the next generation of self-driving vehicles, there’s a fair amount of skepticism among consumers when it comes to letting go of the wheel and allowing a car to do the driving, several surveys over the last year have found. Even engineers have some qualms.
“I have no problem letting a car take control,” said Jeffrey Miller, an associate professor of engineering practice at the University of Southern California. “But having a car take my kids to school? You’re talking about people who don’t have the ability to take over if something goes wrong. I’m not that comfortable with it.”
That sentiment was echoed in a survey of over 400 respondents by IEEE, the professional engineering organization, that grew out of a round table that Professor Miller took part in. On a scale of 1 to 5 — with “very comfortable” being a 5 — more than two-thirds of the experts in the study said they weren’t ready to have a robotic car play nanny, giving the concept a 3 or lower. Not exactly a ringing endorsement from engineers of the state of the art in self-driving cars.
“It’s not the technology. It’s user acceptance that’s holding us up right now,” Professor Miller said.
This is not to say experts and consumers don’t see potential benefits.
Scott Fischer, 55, the chief executive of a privately held recruiting firm in Chicago, foresees a variety of situations in which autonomous vehicles would be a major advantage. “I’m not skeptical at all,” Mr. Fischer said.
Mr. Fischer, who took part in a study of older drivers conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab and the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence, part of the insurance company The Hartford, said autonomous cars could give him more peace of mind about his two daughters, who are in their 20s and have limited driving experience. “They don’t drive as much they take Uber,” he said, “so I see the safety aspects.”
For his father, who is in his early 80s and facing driving challenges because of vision issues, an autonomous vehicle would be a way to get around on his own, Mr. Fischer said. And for his own part, Mr. Fischer would let the car take over when he was tired on a long drive or needed to read email.
“But I want to see proof of concept that the technology actually works,” he added.
Joseph Coughlin, director of the M.I.T. AgeLab, said that for the study’s participants, who ranged in age from 50 to 69, there was no reflexive aversion to technology-assisted driving. “If they see it as useful or enhancing safety,” he said, “they’re willing to pay for it.”
Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist and executive director of the Hartford Center, said that, in general, people over 50 expressed the most interest in technology that alerts drivers to vehicles in their blind spot, said “It was naturally appealing to them since there’s often a reduced range of motion” in older drivers, Ms. Olshevski noted.
Still, even older drivers were hesitant to give up total control. In the M.I.T. study, most were less likely to accept automatic parking and cruise assistance systems, worried that they would become overly reliant on the technology at the expense of their driving skills.
There’s also the Route 66 romanticism many older Americans still have with the automobile. “Baby boomers have a love affair with the car,” said Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a longtime researcher on autonomous vehicles. “On the other hand, the current generation would rather be Snapchatting, and they are a lot more receptive to technology.”
And in the autonomous-vehicle age, established automakers may be on an equal footing with technology companies. A Nielsen automotive study of over 1,100 participants 8 to 18 years old found there was an equal interest in buying a self-driving car from a technology company, such as Google or Apple, as there was from purchasing one an automaker like Ford or General Motors.
According to a 2016 Autotrader Car Tech Impact Study, about two-thirds of consumers would switch brands to get the technology they want. “But completely brand agnostic, I don’t think people are shopping that way yet,” said Brian Moody, executive editor at Autotrader.
More telling, perhaps, is that roughly two-thirds of the consumers in the Autotrader survey acknowledged that they still would not feel confident enough in a self-driving car to take their eyes off the road.
Even the young participants in the Nielsen study seemed reluctant to take their hands off the wheel, especially high school students with licenses. Roughly three out of four drivers of high school age would prefer to drive themselves, according to the Nielsen study. And one-third said self-driving cars were unnecessary.
That may reflect the fact that those with freshly minted driver’s licenses may be particularly reluctant to give up their newfound independence, says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, vice president, automotive, at the Nielsen Company. Mr. VanNieuwkuyk also noted that younger drivers have not yet logged hundreds of annoying hours stewing in traffic or had to suffer through the daily ritual of monotonous commutes.
“And yet young people are the ones who are going to be the potential beneficiaries of this technology,” Mr. VanNieuwkuyk said. “The youngest have more acceptance; they’re already passengers and they’re more engaged with technology.”
The various studies also reflect a sharper divide between those who love to drive and those who find it a stressful activity.
“There are people who want to hop into the back seat and go to sleep,” said Ken Washington, vice president of Ford’s research and advanced engineering division, “and others who say, ‘No robot is going to drive my car.’”
Most of the researchers and automotive experts say driver attitudes will shift as more advanced safety and semiautonomous systems are introduced into new models. Education about how the systems work and their benefits will also help.
“And just think of being stuck in a traffic jam,” said Professor Rajkumar of Carnegie Mellon. “Then you start to see the light.”