It goes without saying that there is a great deal of skepticism among consumers on the topic of autonomous vehicles. Horror stories, fake news, and sensationalist headlines peddled by tabloids have added fuelled general distrust and apprehension which could lead automakers to realize a major problem — that the market simply rejects their driverless cars.
While noble—automakers’ efforts are moving far too quickly and risk bringing vehicles to market at a time where there could be a relatively dubious market for them.
The Problem of an Unreceptive Market
Although it is generally accepted among automakers and other professionals that with autonomous cars comes increased road safety, with estimations showing that driverless cars will reduce traffic deaths by up to 90% in the U.S. alone, public perceptions remain dire.
A poll from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) found that 60% of UK adults would rather drive their own cars. This is despite statistics showing that 90% of road accidents are caused by human error. In its study, Public perceptions: Driverless cars, IMechE also found that 32% of people would support driverless cars being restricted to 30 miles per hour and that 66% are flat-out uncomfortable with the notion of traveling in one.
Another study by ANSYS, the Global Autonomous Vehicles Report, found that 43% of people surveyed said that they would “never be comfortable” riding in a self-driving car.
Ford president and CEO Jim Hackett (right) and Volkswagen CEO Dr. Herbert Diess (left). Image Credit: Ford.
The good news, however, is that perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a greater acceptance among younger people both in the UK and abroad. In the same survey, ANSYS found that 88% of respondents aged between 25 – 34 said that they would be willing and are ready to ride in driverless cars.
Not so long ago, it seemed that the vision of thousands of self-driving vehicles and taxis on the road was just around the corner. In fact, Silicon Valley had us believe that fleets of these taxis would be on the road by the end of 2019.
It’s now 2020 and, as I am sure you are aware, these vehicles are nowhere to be seen and it is likely to be several years before they begin to arrive.
Speaking at the Detroit Economic Club in April last year, Jim Hackett, Ford’s chief executive, said that they “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” and announced in July that it would be partnering up with Volkswagen to tackle the so-called “self-driving challenge”. The two companies plan to use automotive vehicle technology from Argo AI in a few urban zones as early as next year.
A table detailing the development levels of vehicle autonomy and the current stage of present-day vehicles in relation to those levels. Image Credit: IMechE.
Do Automakers Need to Slow Down?
Whenever one asks those involved in self-driving vehicles when they may be ready for market and capable of seamlessly carrying passengers in every city across the world, the same answer is received: Not yet.
While there are many assessments as to when we may see autonomous vehicles on the roads, the more optimistic ones settle somewhere around the 10-year mark. Even then, if these assessments are correct, we will only see a limited number of vehicles in limited, well-mapped areas.
Despite these vehicles being a relatively time away from hitting our streets, do automakers need to slow down?
While this question is still open for debate, it is clear that automakers have long since accepted what we know to be reality — that truly automated vehicles are likely far, far in the future. Argo AI’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said that the automotive industry’s major promise of delivering driverless cars that can drive everywhere and anywhere are “way in the future” and that although tests are underway, their cars have to navigate unexpected situations each day.
He added, “You see all kinds of crazy things on the road, and it turns out they’re not all that infrequent, but you have to be able to handle all of them. With radar and high-resolution cameras and all the computing power we have, we can detect and identify the objects on a street. The hard part is anticipating what they’re going to do next.”
What We Need to Be Ready for AVs
Until public perceptions improve, automakers need to be careful that they don’t end up creating and bringing to market automobiles that have the potential to be rejected by the market. To avoid this, they must quell the fears surrounding autonomous vehicles and the potential dangers they pose. At the same time, automakers must continue developing their autonomous vehicles so they are able to, as Salesky said, anticipate “what they’re going to do next.” Public perceptions will only improve when there is proof that autonomous vehicles are a safer alternative to standard automobiles.
To that end, automakers must also put a lot more effort – perhaps an amount comparable to that currently plowed into driverless car R&D – into educating the public and improving perceptions, dispelling hysteria and false ideas that come from both general ignorance misinformation delivered by the media, and making advances in safety more known to the masses.
If they do not, they may perfect the driverless car and bring it to a market where very few people actually want it.