Is the car-buying public ready for autonomy?
Our survey asks car buyers’ attitudes on the growing use of autonomous technology in the car industry
If there’s one thing Leavers and Remainers can agree on, it is surely this: although everyone knows we are on a path to somewhere, the prospect of Brexit raises so many more questions than it answers that we don’t know exactly how we’ll get to a conclusion or what it is.
So it is with the automotive industry’s own Brexit-style dilemma, autonomous driving: we know it’s coming, but despite legislation and timelines being forged, the path to achieving it remains shrouded in fog and the final solutions – and complications arising from them – are far from certain. Little wonder that car buyers are confused.
To discover the depth of just how confused, plus to delve deeper into the expectations of customers and opportunities for car makers, Autocar teamed up with renowned survey research advisor Simpson Carpenter, which has been working in the automotive sector for more than 20 years, most frequently advising car makers on the thoughts of customers and potential customers. Led by Tom Simpson, managing director of the firm, we contacted more than 2500 people (consisting of 411 future car buyers, 1000 new car buyers and 1266 car enthusiasts) who had recently bought a car, were thinking of buying a car or classed themselves as car enthusiasts to poll their thoughts, which are laid out in the gallery above.
“The conclusions are broadly summed up by some simple statements,” says Simpson. “Chiefly, right now, confusion reigns. Opinions on the subject are polarised. The majority of people believe autonomous cars might be safer and might make life easier, but they have doubts that the technology will really work. Older people are the most resistant – and they are the ones that buy the cars – and there’s an underlying message from many people that they love driving cars, pure and simple, and they don’t want to lose that.
What are the main advantages of autonomous cars?
Orange – New car buyers, Pink – Car enthusiasts
“Our results suggest the death of the car industry is much exaggerated and the shift to autonomy offers some real potential for major opportunities. There’s an underlying trend, too, that while buyers largely expect to buy their future cars from traditional car makers, they like the idea of car companies partnering with tech giants to make them. It’s that ‘Intel Inside’ philosophy that gives reassurance. There’s also evidence that some of the trends being pushed hard now – car sharing, for instance – are struggling for acceptance.”
As well as answering set questions, respondents were invited to leave commentary on autonomy. Broad themes emerged. Those who like the notion of autonomy feel it will provide more independence, especially for the elderly and disabled, while improving safety and relieving driver fatigue. “I like the idea of taking human error out of driving,” said one new car buyer. “Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do every day.”
The most hostile groups make a clear assumption that technology will never be able to replicate human response and awareness, and there is a major fear that it will result in the enjoyment of driving being taken away. “The whole concept terrifies me,” said one car enthusiast. Another said: “It means I would have to trust a machine and ultimately artificial intelligence, and fundamentally I don’t feel able to do that.”
What are the barriers that an autonomous car must overcome?
Simpson concludes that, with the transition to fully autonomous cars gathering pace now and accelerating in the near future, car makers must start educating car buyers and enthusiasts in upcoming technology faster and more effectively.
“Ten years is not a long time to move opinions – and a remarkably short time to move fundamental attitudes,” he says. “The problem the car industry has – unlike the general tech industry with, for instance, mobile phones – is that car buyers are typically older and more averse to change. In tech, it’s younger people who adopt change and then teach older people to do the same. The car makers will have to rely on older people taking the plunge – yet it’s clear many don’t want to, especially a hardcore of enthusiasts, who are usually the opinion formers.
“That’s partly because most people simply don’t understand what self-driving tech means. It’s such a broad term. But also, research shows that customers do understand some of the benefits of autonomy but not all. People don’t want tech for tech’s sake. They want to know what it can do for them as an owner or user.”