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Why nearly half of consumers don't want self-driving cars

Consumers remain skeptical about driverless cars. (Photo: Adobe Stock / estherpoon)

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René Tellers
René Tellers

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Large American cities compete in the self-driving car race, a study dampens road safety expectations and a challenge for young talent offers exciting opportunities: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

Self-driving car startup Aurora has just become the first company officially authorized to test its vehicles on Pennsylvania’s roads. Waymo will launch its driverless ride-hailing service for the general public in Phoenix this year. And the city of Sacramento recently made a deal with driverless car company Phantom Auto that allows autonomous vehicles on the streets without a safety driver on board.

What do these seemingly unrelated news have in common? They are proof of an increasing competition among U.S. cities and states to allow autonomous vehicles on their roads. This notion is backed by a new study of the National League of Cities that shows many cities are actively pushing for autonomous technology. According to the Autonomous Vehicle Pilots Across America report, around 50 percent of America's largest cities envision self-driving vehicles as being part of their long-range transportation plans. The figure is up from less than 10 percent three years ago. And while between 2011 and 2017, 22 states passed 46 bills related to autonomous driving, in 2018 alone 28 states passed 98 such bills.

So while legislators are clearly preparing for the advent of driverless cars, a major source of concern remains: do their citizens really want the technology? A recent survey conducted by JD Power Pulse once again showed a deep public distrust, with 38 percent of respondents saying they would never ride in a fully automated vehicle. Another 45 percent said they would require 100 percent safety before they would ride in an AV. “In other words,” said Robert Lajdziak, a senior J.D. Power analyst, they would only accept the possibility of “no accidents at all — before they would ride in one.”

I consider this troubling news for the industry. While automated cars promise to be safer than human-driven cars, they will never be one hundred percent safe. Yet given all they know about the number of traffic accidents attributed to human error every year, consumers are still more willing to accept this than the “unknown” that is machine error – an interesting psychological phenomenon in itself. Exposure to the technology could help overcome fears. But the industry and legislators can’t just hope for this alone to solve the issue. They need to step up their efforts to explain what the technology will be able to achieve – reduce accidents dramatically – and what it won’t be able to do – eliminate all accidents.

Back to the future

The effect of automation on road safety depends on various factors. One of them is the level of automation; another one is the pace of the rollout of those automated features. A recent study by German automobile club ADAC predicted the market penetration of vehicles with level 4 automation by 2050 – and the effect this will have on road safety. The result is rather sobering.

What effect will automated driving have on road safety? (Photo: Daimler)

The study forecasts that only 20 percent of all kilometers driven in 2050 will be automated. The degree will vary among road types: on highways the number will be as high as 40 percent. On rural roads it will be a mere 4 percent. That’s because the authors assume that it will take longer for Level 4 automated features to be available on rural roads. Unfortunately, a large share of severe accidents in Germany happen on rural roads. Hence the study reaching the conclusion that the impact of automated driving on road fatalities will be marginal until 2050.

There are a lot of autonomous vehicles forecasts out there. Their conclusions vary drastically – and some even predicted in the past that it’ll be almost exclusively self-driving cars on our roads by 2050. Looking 30 or more years into the future is like gazing into a crystal ball. Who would have predicted the iPhone in 1975? Still, long-range forecasts like the one from ADAC are useful to be reminded of the big picture. Driverless cars may be about to hit our roads, but it will take many more years until we harvest their full potential.

Hackathon challenge: Apply now

For those readers who like to contribute to harvesting the potential of future mobility, I would like to draw your attention to #Fiction2Science, a hackathon and engineering challenge by Continental. The “Industrial AR challenge” will take place in the city of Mainz from November 29 to December 1. Its focus will be centered on merging digital data with reality and creating virtual applications for the industry. Young talent with skills in the areas of Unity, JavaScript, C#, MicroStrategy BI, object detection/visualization (HoloLens) and 3D CAD data can apply now. You can find more information about the project here and see why it’s worth participating in the video below.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

René Tellers,


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