Americans Pretty Sure Autonomous Cars Are Safer, Want To Keep Driving Anyway

Image courtesy of Atwater Village Newbie

In just a few short years, self-driving cars have made the shift from being the stuff of science fiction to actually hitting the road. Right now the tech is still largely in the testing stage, and human drivers sit in the front seat ready to take control. But as automakers, ride-hailing companies, and tech giants bring all their AI drivers onto the highways, one big question looms: will anyone actually want to buy a car that drives itself? Or are we just too in love with the American mythos of a steering wheel and the open road?

If you can’t quite make up your mind which camp you fall into, you’re apparently in good company, a new study from Kelley Blue Book finds. On a national level, we seem pretty much torn.

A majority — 63% — who said that they believe roadways would be safer if autonomous cars were the standard. But 51% of respondents in the national study said that they prefer to have full control of their own vehicle, even if it’s not as safe for other drivers. Meanwhile 49% said that they prefer to have safer roads for everyone, even if it means they have to give up some control.

Autonomy, for cars, is actually a spectrum — it’s not just a binary self-driving or not. There are six levels of machine control, ranging from 0 (a totally human-controlled car) to 5 (straight-up sci-fi robot cars).

A lot of level 1 and even level 2 autonomy already exists in regular cars you can drive today, like automatic braking systems that might kick in as needed. Level 4 is where your car can totally drive itself, and a level 5 vehicle wouldn’t even have a steering wheel or other mechanism in it for a human to take over if they wanted to.

KBB found that most folks don’t actually know that there are so many degrees of autonomy: about 60% of their respondents said they know “little or nothing” about autonomous cars. And once told, respondents weren’t sure they liked it. For about half, the feeling of safety they had about autonomous cars drops as the level of autonomy a vehicle has goes up.

Level 4 autonomy — where the car is pretty much on total autopilot, but still has a steering wheel and other systems that can let a human take over as wanted or needed — seemed to hit the sweet spot, KBB determined. Which, since 80% of survey respondents said that people should be able to take control as needed, makes sense.

Interestingly, most consumers KBB surveyed don’t seem to think that ambitious timetables from companies like Lyft or Tesla are all that plausible: 62% said they would not see a world where all cars are fully autonomous in their lifetimes.

And speaking of those lifetimes, how many years you’ve lived so far definitely seems to affect how cool you are with an all-automated future. Only 1% of those in the 51-64 age range said they knew much about autonomous cars, and expressed the least comfort with them. Kids these days, on the other hand, seem gung-ho for more tech.

And we do mean, literally, kids: Those in the 12-15 age range — who have places to go but are too young to drive themselves there — were by far the most enthusastic and comfortable with autonomous cars. Among that slice of survey respondents, 73% are comfortable with autonomous cars, 79% feel safe with them, and 67% expect to see them on the road in their lifetimes.

Also not surprising: owners of luxury vehicles seemed both more aware of and more comfortable with autonomous features, which usually start as new ideas in the high-end market and head down into mid-range and low-cost cars from there over time.

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