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Study Says Minority of Drivers Want Autonomous Cars

Study Says Minority of Drivers Want Autonomous Cars

By Jeff Youngs,

Automakers and technology firms are working overtime to develop autonomous cars--vehicles that employ radar, cameras, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and other technologies--in order to drive themselves to whatever destination is entered into the navigation system. Proponents of self-driving cars say they are safer, more efficient, can park themselves, and could reduce traffic congestion, creating a daily commuter's utopia. But what do today's drivers think of driverless cars?

In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by CarInsurance.com, an online car insurance comparison and rate quote company, 80% of survey respondents said they would not buy an autonomous car if one were available today. Trust in the technology is the major hurdle to consideration, with a majority of consumers agreeing that computers cannot make driving decisions equal in quality to those made by human beings, that humans can drive cars better than computers, and that they would not trust an autonomous vehicle to take their children to school.

These findings are similar to those of J.D. Power regarding autonomous vehicles. In both 2012 and 2013, the J.D. Power U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies Study found that only one out of every five consumers was interested in a fully autonomous vehicle. What did change from 2012 to 2013, according to J.D. Power's Mike VanNieuwkyuk, executive director of the market research firm's global automotive practice, is consumer sentiment about such technology. In 2012, autonomous driving technology inspired consumer wonder and excitement. In 2013, survey respondents expressed concerns about whether self-driving cars were assured to work, issues of liability, and how driverless cars would co-exist with cars with actual drivers.

Perhaps financial savings and increased personal convenience assuage such concerns. In the CarInsurance.com survey, 90% of those surveyed said they would at least consider a self-driving car if owning one produced an 80% reduction in car insurance rates. Separately, a study performed by KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) found that drivers were also much more interested in owning an autonomous vehicle if they could travel in a dedicated lane and enjoy a 50% reduction in commuting time.

Potential Safety Benefits of Driverless Cars
Automakers and technology firms are also focused on developing autonomous driving systems in order to dramatically reduce the number of car accidents each year. Though motor-vehicle accident injury and fatality rates have steadily declined since the 1970s, falling to record lows despite significant increases in the number of miles driven each year, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that 95% of all crashes occur due to driver error. According to Sebastian Thrun, a robotics expert working for tech giant Google, self-driving cars could reduce accident rates by 90%.

Autonomous driver-assistance technology is already available in many of today's vehicles, primarily in association with braking, steering, and cruise control systems. Some models even offer fully autonomous driving systems that operate at low speeds, such as the redesigned 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Google, one of the technology companies exploring a driverless future, has been testing self-driving cars for years, and without incident.

However, on November 10 at a dealership in Japan, a Mazda CX-5 crossover SUV equipped with the automaker's Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) system crashed into a barrier that was set in place to demonstrate how the technology works. The crash injured the salesperson and the prospective customer. Mazda does not promise that the SCBS system will eliminate the possibility of a crash. Rather, Mazda says the system "is designed to assist a driver in avoiding front collisions when traveling at low speeds of less than 19 mph." Mazda further explains, "While the system will not eliminate accidents, its intent is to minimize them and reduce the severity of a crash."

In response to the Mazda incident, Hiroshi Ataka, an analyst with IHS Automotive, told Bloomberg, "For any safety function, it's impossible to be 100 percent free of accidents." Ataka further commented, "These technical functions aren't always the easiest to understand."

In cases where autonomous driving technology does not function as intended, where might liability rest in the case of a crash involving a self-driving car? According to Thomas Simeone, a personal injury lawyer interviewed by CarInsurance.com, liability for such features might ultimately rest with the auto manufacturers. "Whereas today we see one driver suing another, we could see both drivers seeking damages from the manufacturer due to a defect."

Furthermore, as shown by the J.D. Power research, there is a question as to how a mixed population of driver-piloted and driverless vehicles might impact issues of liability as well as insurance costs. Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that as more vehicles adopt autonomous driving technology, the accidents that do occur will be much more expensive in terms of vehicle repairs. Reimer noted, "A bumper loaded with sensors and cameras is much more costly than a regular bumper."

Although autonomous driving-assist technologies are already available on many vehicles, Penny Gusner, an analyst with CarInsurance.com, says that insurance companies are not yet offering discounts for them, explaining that insurers do not have statistics showing that such features are reducing claims. Ironically, Gusner says that such systems can help to lower insurance bills when they are used properly to avoid accidents, resulting in "good driver" discounts of 20 percent or more.

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