How will driverless cars be received by potential buyers?

A study looks at drivers from around the globe and how they feel about stepping behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle.

While much of the hyperbole about the imminent arrival of self-driving autonomous vehicles (AVs) now seems to have given way to reality, the fact remains that such vehicles are being developed and are likely to be realized on a commercial scale — even if it takes longer than many proponents predicted.

Beyond just the technical and legal issues that must be overcome before that happens, there remains one big societal question: how will AVs be received by customers who will be expected to buy and use them? The role of the personal automobile for many buyers is much more than just transportation. It is a social statement; a status symbol; a reflection of their very id; and tangible confirmation of their personal freedom. They won’t give it up easily.

In preparation for the challenge of persuading such customers to accept and adopt AVs, Audi has launched an initiative called &Audi to help establish reasonable expectations regarding the possibilities and limitations of such technologies, and thus to create trust.

One of the first products of that initiative was a study called The Pulse of Autonomous Driving, conducted in conjunction with the market research institute Ipsos. It involved interviews with 21,000 people in nine countries on three continents — China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The results of the study were divided into three parts, as follows:

Emotional Landscape

The emotional landscape, on a global basis, reflected a strong interest in autonomous driving, by 82 per cent of respondents. They generally recognized the potential for benefits in terms of easier access to mobility and greater convenience, as well as greater safety. And more than half of respondents said they would like to test the technology.

But they also had clear concerns: most prevalent (70 per cent) was the fear of loss of control. Fully 41 per cent were suspicious of the technology, and more than one third acknowledged being anxious about it. Perhaps explaining some of that caution, only 8 per cent of respondents said they could explain the subject.

Human Readiness Index

The results showed that attitudes to autonomous driving are clearly related to socio-demographics. Stated succinctly, the younger the respondents and the higher their level of education and income, the more positive their attitude to autonomous driving.

Members of Generation Z were especially open to the idea, while baby-boomers were the least excited about the prospect, and men typically viewed it more positively than women.

Frequent drivers also tended to regard the technology more positively than those who drive less, as did those with a history of ride-sharing. Perhaps surprisingly, there was little difference between people that live in cities and those from the country. Geographically the Chinese and South Koreans regarded autonomous driving very positively, while Europeans, Japanese, and Americans tended to be more reserved.

User Typology

The user typology looked at attitudes to autonomous driving in the context of people’s lives, identifying five specific user response types, ranging from rejection to enthusiasm. These user categories showed differences even more clearly than the socio- demographic characteristics.

“Suspicious Drivers” don’t trust the technology and won’t accept self-driving cars until a large majority of people have already done so.

“Safety-Oriented Reluctants” have low interest in autonomous driving and don’t know much about it. They are curious, however, and can imagine it taking control in congestion on a highway, or when parking — so long as they can intervene at any time.

“Open-minded co-pilots” expect greater safety and more convenience from autonomous vehicles, but want to be able to intervene at all times. Most of all, they still want their own cars for autonomous driving.

“Status-oriented trendsetters” love new technologies and are correspondingly open to the idea of autonomous driving. More than any others, status-oriented trendsetters believe it will improve their image. (Tesla buyers perhaps?)

“Tech-savvy passengers” are those who would happily get aboard self-driving cars today. For them it is only a question of time before autonomous driving becomes reality. They are the only user type for whom loss of control is not the principal concern.

Fortunately for the industry, and for those who will be tasked with selling AVs in the future, “Open-minded Co-Pilots”, who are positively inclined towards the technology and still want their own personal vehicles, are the largest of the five groups, followed by “Safety-Oriented Reluctants”, who are at least semi-receptive.

The challenge will be, however, that Americans (arguably the closest proxy to Canadians) are among the least receptive market in the world. There’s still work to be done!

About Gerry Malloy

Gerry Malloy is one of Canada's best known, award-winning automotive journalists.

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