Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation released their long-awaited guidelines for automated vehicles. On the same day of release, Obama published an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, declaring his support for self-driving car technology and stating a focus on automated vehicle safety. He also promised the public that the government would have the authority to pull unsafe self-driving cars off the streets.
Despite the declaration, there is still a long road ahead to gain public support for autonomous car technology. Current research indicates that not all Americans are in favor of self-driving vehicles. The public’s hesitation stems from three reasons: cost, safety and fun.
The cost of automation
How much will driverless vehicles cost to purchase? While a definitive amount won’t likely be released until they’re officially on the market, there are estimated prices. IHS predicts they will cost $7,000 to $10,000 more than the price of average vehicles in 2025, and that margin will decrease as adoption grows. The average price of a new car is currently $33,666.
Of course, not all Americans will go out and purchase the new vehicles upon release, even if they have the money to do so. In 2015, the average age of cars on the road was 11.5 years and the average length of ownership for new cars was 6.5 years. Will Americans be willing to drop $10,000 more for the latest technology? Only time will tell, but it’s a factor that is likely deterring public support.
There are still safety concerns
Current research suggests that Americans are not yet convinced of driverless car safety. The American Automobile Association found that 75 percent of Americans are afraid to ride in self-driving cars and in May, a study from the University of Michigan found that the most frequent preference for vehicle automation was for “no self-driving capability.”
A third study, conducted by EverQuote, reiterates those safety concerns, finding that 81 percent of Americans believe they are safer driving themselves than they are in a self-driving car.
That is the majority’s belief despite the fact that experts have predicted that autonomous vehicles will reduce crashes by 90%. Clearly, there’s a disconnect.
The new Federal Automated Vehicle Policy did state safety tools—one would be a “pre-market approval” process, through which driverless cars would have to pass certifications before they could hit the market. The approval process would also include a 15-point assessment, with points detailing data privacy, vehicle cybersecurity and ethical considerations. The authorities are looking to measure safety and avoid over-regulation, in fear of hindering innovation. Yet, with lives at risk, there is a fine balance.
Education may be the answer to upholding that balance. The public may not currently know the difference between an SAE Level 3 and Level 4 automated cars, but they should if they’re going to be traveling in them.
Automated cars may cause concern to those who revel in the freedom and fun that comes along with driving. A study from NerdWallet found that 44 percent of men are concerned that driverless cars will take the fun out of driving. Some drivers do actually enjoy driving—how will automated cars account for that enjoyment? Will in-vehicle entertainment features and comfortable seating be enough of a substitute?
Furthermore, how will tech companies deal with those who feel that driverless cars may actually hinder their freedom? The responses following Seattle’s proposal to ban human drivers over time from a stretch of road between Seattle and Vancouver, restricting use to driverless cars, were less than supportive. “Sounds like a huge loss of freedom for personal travel plans,” one commenter wrote on The Seattle Times article. Another wrote “…this proposal is insane.”
Perhaps, those who do not have experience with the technology are hesitant because of safety concerns but also because they’re still picturing sci-fi fantasies with robots or computers taking over the world and their freedom—the core America was built on—in exchange for more power.
That’s not their fault, as public use of the technology has been limited except for road testing and Uber’s trial in Pittsburgh—except even the vehicles used in the trial are not fully automated. Going forward, the technology will need to be in the public eye to gain support.
With 94 percent of accidents caused by human error, automated vehicles are worth the risk to prevent more deaths. Their safety just needs to be publicly proved first, and now might be the time for tech companies to step up. A lack of public support will be the fastest way to put the brakes on automated car adoption.
Based on the miles drivers are distracted on the road each year, Americans could take 4.5 million trips around the world without looking up from their phones. That’s a lot of miles that, perhaps, would be more safely traveled in automated vehicles.