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Cultural divides: how acceptance of driverless cars varies globally

Acceptance of driverless cars varies among different cultures. (Photo: Pexels)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Would you like to take a ride in a self-driving car? Your answer might depend on where you live. Automated cars are perceived differently around the world. Some countries long for them more than others. And they’re not the ones you might expect.

Will consumers embrace automated driving technology? There are many factors that will play a role in answering this question. The degree of safety that driverless cars will achieve. The price tag that those vehicles will end up with. Or the level of comfort that self-driving cars will offer.

However, one aspect is often overlooked: the cultural background. How does the acceptance of driverless cars vary among different cultures? Are autonomous vehicles perceived differently in Europe, North America and Asia? We have looked at various surveys to identify the most striking discrepancies – and possible explanations for them.

On a global scale, consumers are quite open to the idea of driverless cars. In a 2015 survey by Boston Consultant Group (BCG), 5,500 people in ten countries were asked whether they would take a ride in a fully self-driving car. 58 percent of the respondents agreed – a solid majority. But the individual national numbers paint a slightly different picture. And a surprising one, too. While respondents from India (85 percent) and China (75 percent) have an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards autonomous driving, barely half of the American citizens (52 percent) do. In the United Kingdom (49 percent) Germany (44 percent), many people tend to remain skeptical.

China & India: trailblazers for driverless cars?

But don’t be too quick to state a difference in mentality between the Western World and Asia, as Japan comes in last with only 36 percent favorability. So the divide might be a different one: while emerging countries embrace this technology, skepticism is more dominant in highly-industrialized economies. That may seem contradictory at first. So what is it that makes autonomous driving more appealing to growing economies like China or India?

Megacities like Shanghai suffer from severe smog. (Photo: Fotolia / wusuowei)

While generalizations are difficult, a look at the advantages that driverless cars provide can give some hints. The most important benefit is the potential to reduce accidents significantly. Since 90 percent of all car crashes are caused by human error, automated driving promises to virtually eliminate this danger. Both China and India suffer from a very low level of road safety, with more than 200,000 traffic fatalities per year in each country. In China, there are 18.9 road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the WHO. It’s a sad statistic which could explain why driverless car technology cannot come soon enough for this planet’s two biggest countries.

Car crashes may increase the urge to act

Germany, in comparison, averages 4.3 road deaths per 100,000 inhabitants – less than a quarter of China’s numbers. Having already achieved high safety standards, the need to introduce driverless cars might not be as pressing. Why rush when you can wait and see how the technology evolves and initial difficulties are overcome? People from emerging countries, on the other hand, might even be willing to accept system failures in the beginning. In the Continental Mobility Study 2013, 79 percent of all Chinese respondents thought automated driving was a useful advancement – compared to only 41 percent of US citizens. At the same time, three quarters of the Chinese agreed to the statement: “I don’t believe that it will function reliably.” An assessment that, however, evidently does not stop them from being eager to use driverless cars.

Another significant benefit of self-driving cars is that they will run more economically and facilitate a smoother traffic flow. This could result in less traffic jams – and therefore less CO2 emissions. Now this would come as a great relief for any country – but especially for a nation like India, which is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities. This appears to make its inhabitants more welcoming of innovative mobility solutions. Fittingly, according to BCG 67 percent of India’s citizens would be willing to use a shared self-driving taxi, but only 24 percent of the Japanese and 15 percent of the Dutch people.

Weighing up the pros and cons

All this does not mean that consumers from highly-industrialized states in general have a negative stance towards automated driving. The best example is Singapore, where 62 percent of respondents approved of driverless cars in the BCG survey. Other countries just might be a little more hesitant.

Drivers appreciate automated help in stressful situations. (Photo: Fotolia / hykoe)

Studies suggest that German and US consumers are still weighing the pros and cons of automated driving. One aspect they would appreciate is the comfort that goes along with transferring driving tasks to the vehicle. According to the Continental Mobility Study 2015, 68 percent of Germans and 54 percent of US citizens expect that automated driving would relieve them in monotonous or stressful situations. At the same time, 43 percent of German and even 61 percent of US drivers said that automated driving scares them. A 2015 Ernst & Young study gave further insights on what might bother German drivers. The biggest concern for 58 percent of them was that autonomous cars spoil the fun of driving. This indicates that car manufacturers will have to increase their persuasive efforts in countries where manual driving is especially associated with personal freedom.

Cultural differences, cultural similarities

In spite of all cultural differences, there are some similarities that transcend national boundaries. Continental’s 2013 study also asked drivers in Germany, USA, China and Japan in which traffic situations they would appreciate automated driving. Situations involving roadwork and stop-and-go traffic on the freeway got high approval ratings in all countries, as well as parking in a parking ramp.

Driving on the freeway - joy or nuisance? (Photo: Fotolia / chungking)

Freeway driving in general scored very low in Germany, however. Only 26 percent of those surveyed said they would like the support of automated driving features in those situations – compared to 61 percent in Japan. It’s probably safe to say that for the country of the Autobahn without speed limits, this is a cultural characteristic that will not disappear so quickly.

Author: Stephan Giesler

Do you agree with our analysis? Where do you live and why would you like to have a driverless car? Safety, Efficiency or Comfort? Share your thoughts!

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Angelo Rychel
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