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Biggest Problem For Robot Cars May Be That People Don’t Want Them

Promoters of self-driving vehicles tout the supposed benefits the robot cars will bring such as improved road safety if all the technological challenges are solved.  They appear to assume adoption will be widespread once the robot technology is perfected.

There is a long way to go. Google’s self-driving cars, now being tested on public roads in California and Texas can’t cope with heavy rain or snow.  It’s difficult for them to make a left turn with oncoming traffic and they apparently can’t understand hand signals from a human driver or a traffic cop.

But even if those challenges are overcome, robot cars could face a bigger stumbling block to widespread adoption.  People simply may not want them.  Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, two researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Insitute, have  recently published a report titled Motorists’ Preferences For Different Levels of Vehicle Automation.

“Self-driving vehicles are often discussed in regard to their potential safety, energy consumption, and environmental benefits, or the existing technical challenges that must be overcome for their successful implementation,” they write. “However, less attention has been paid to considering the actual level of automation (if any) that drivers desire in their vehicle.”

So they decided to ask and designed a survey to find out.  Here are the key results:

“When respondents were asked about which level of vehicle automation they preferred, the most frequent preference was for no self-driving (43.8 percent), followed by partially self-driving (40.6 percent), with completely self-driving being the least preferred  (15.6 percent).”

You’ll recall that Google’s announced intention is to offer a robot car without a steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals.  Not a wise decision based on the results of the Transportation Research Institute survey.  “Nearly all respondents (96.2 percent) would want to have a steering wheel plus gas and brake pedals (or some other controls) available in completely self-driving vehicles,” write the researchers.

Here are some other results of the survey:

  • 35.6 percent were very concerned about riding in a completely self-driving vehicle (and 68.3 percent were very or moderately concerned), as opposed to 14.1 percent for a partially self-driving vehicle (with 48.8 percent being  very or moderately concerned).
  • The most preferred method for inputting a route or destination was touchscreens (37.8 percent), followed closely by voice commands (36.2 percent).
  • Most respondents (59.4 percent) prefer to be notified of the need to take control of a partially self-driving vehicle with a combination of sound, vibration, and visual warnings.

The key takeaway, I think, is that even if the technical challenges can ultimately be overcome, a lot of people aren’t particularly interested in riding around in robot cars.