Safety or control – what do Americans want when it comes to driverless cars?

One of the most attractive things about the advent of driverless cars is the safety improvements they promise for road users. 

But a new survey suggests that when it comes to handing over to a self-driving vehicle, American consumers are torn between the need for safety and their desire for control.

According to the 2016 Kelley Blue Book Future Autonomous Vehicle Driver Study, 51% of respondents would prefer to have full control of their vehicle, even if this makes the roads less safe for others. The finding comes despite a clear majority of respondents (63%) believing that the roads would be safer if autonomous vehicles became standard.

The research also found that consumers’ knowledge about driverless cars is limited, with six out of ten respondents claiming to know little or nothing about autonomous vehicles.

However, awareness is higher for younger consumers, with 43% of 'Generation Z' respondents (12-15 years old) claiming to know a lot about autonomous vehicles, compared to the 1% of Baby Boomers (51-64 years old) who feel the same way.

Younger respondents are also most comfortable with (73%) full vehicle autonomy, according to the research.

Driverless or semi-autonomous vehicles?

2016 Kelley Blue Book Future Autonomous Driver Study: Levels of Self-Driving Cars

Survey respondents were asked to choose their preferred level of autonomy from the different levels set out by the Society of Automotive Engineers – ranging from Level 0 (human-only control) to Level 5 (no human driver). 

The survey showed that Level 4 autonomy hit the respondents’ sweet spot – providing the benefits of full vehicle autonomy, yet still retaining the option of driver control.

This was reinforced by the finding that eight out of ten respondents believe that people should always have the option to drive themselves.

In potentially good news for car-makers investing in self-driving technologies, the survey found that if vehicles offering every level of autonomy were available by 2020, nearly six in ten consumers say they would be likely to purchase a Level 3 or higher autonomous vehicle.

However, for many people, the advent of completely driverless cars still seems a long way off, with a majority of consumers (62%) saying they do not believe they will live to see a world where all vehicles are fully autonomous.

Perhaps understandably, younger generations are more confident about a driverless future, with two-thirds of Generation Z respondents believing they will see fully autonomous vehicles in their lifetime.

When it comes to ride sharing, the study found that a majority of Americans would prefer to use services such as taxis, Uber or Lyft with human drivers (56%), rather than self-driving vehicles.

However, existing users of these services were marginally more likely (51%) to prefer an autonomously driven vehicle.

The research also noted that early adopters who try out autonomous technology develop greater trust in the safety and comfort of fully driverless vehicles, and are the most excited about buying them.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said: “The industry is talking a lot about self-driving vehicles these days, with multiple automakers and ride share companies throwing their hats in the competition to build and release the first fully autonomous vehicle to consumers.

However, “much is still unknown about autonomous vehicles, including how they would react in emergency situations,” said Brauer.

While many Americans are interested in buying vehicles with semi-autonomous features, “first-hand experience like test drives, short-term leasing or daily rentals will be crucial” as they decide whether or not to go ahead with a purchase, Brauer said. 

The survey was conducted among more than 2,200 U.S. residents aged 12-64 years old.