Three-Quarters of U.S. Drivers Say They’d Cede Wheel to Robot

How Will Self-Driving Cars Change Us?
  • AlixPartners survey’s results run counter to earlier studies
  • Robot rides seen as the antidote to drudgery of commuting

Almost three-quarters of U.S. drivers are eager to replace the daily commute’s drudgery with a self-driving car and 80 percent say they would pay extra to have a robot take the wheel, according to a survey that contradicts other recent studies.

QuickTake Driverless Cars

AlixPartners said that when the 1,517 people it surveyed were presented with the attributes of self-driving cars, 73 percent said they would want autonomous vehicles to take over all their driving needs. Mark Wakefield, head of the consulting firm’s automotive practice, said 90 percent would let a driverless car handle their commute if they could occasionally take the wheel.

The results go against several recent studies showing as many as half to three-quarters of respondents weren’t ready to give up the wheel. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said last month that it found that just 16 percent of Americans would prefer to ride in an autonomous vehicle, while 46 percent wanted nothing to do with robot cars and 39 percent would accept a partially self-driving vehicle. Consumer acceptance is critical for automakers and tech giants like Alphabet Inc.’s Google that are investing billions in driverless cars they plan to put on the road by 2020.

“It’s worth remembering that commuting sucks and it has gotten worse every decade,” Wakefield said in an interview. “Autonomous driving increases the economic utility of the commuter and it makes their life better. When you describe what it can do, they like that.”

For a QuickTake explanation on driverless cars, click here

Wakefield said that what automakers testing autonomous vehicles have told him didn’t square with what he had seen from previous surveys. The companies “were saying, when we put people in these cars, they adore them,” he said. “They actually freak out the engineers because they get so comfortable so fast that the engineer sitting beside them has to say, ‘You may want to put your hands on the wheel.’"

Previous surveys may have fostered a bias against autonomous vehicles by emphasizing worst-case scenarios, Wakefield said. AlixPartners’ survey, done online earlier this month, found a “sweet spot” in offering drivers the option of taking the wheel in a vehicle that otherwise would operate autonomously.

“Having some sort of control where you can pilot the vehicle seems to be quite important to people,” Wakefield said. “They love the autonomous stuff, but they just want the ability to control it in whatever situations they’re imagining they need that.”

That preference could work against Google’s plan to offer fully self-driving cars without steering wheels, accelerators or brake pedals, he said.

Consumer Preferences

Yet Silicon Valley companies had a clear advantage when consumers were asked who they trust most to develop the software and protect the privacy of data from driverless cars. AlixPartners said 41 percent in its survey said they wanted Silicon Valley to develop the software, compared to 26 percent who preferred Japanese automakers, 17 percent who chose U.S. automakers and 7 percent who favored European car companies.

When it comes to building the cars, U.S. and Japanese automakers ranked first and second, with 27 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Silicon Valley was a close third at 24 percent, followed by European automakers with 12 percent.

Components Market

Driverless cars will hit an inflection point in 2020 when they begin arriving on roads, according to AlixPartners. By then, the market for autonomous-related components, such as systems that steer wandering cars back in their lanes or automatically navigate through stop-and-go-traffic, could surpass $20 billion, the firm said.

Self-driving cars, which drive more efficiently and safely, could save $325 billion by 2020 by avoiding accidents and reducing fuel costs, AlixPartners said.

“People do want autonomous vehicles,” Wakefield said. “People still buy safety. And they do believe these vehicles can be done safely.”

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