For the most part, news over the past year or so has been positive for autonomous vehicles. Pilot programs have begun, car and tech companies have set ambitious goals in this space, the federal government has so far taken a hands-off approach, and beer has been delivered safely and efficiently via a self-driving truck. Advocates have touted the many benefits of autonomous cars, everything from more access for the disabled, a large decrease in traffic deaths, and increased fuel diversity in the transportation sector. But there’s one area that’s not so positive for autonomy—public opinion.
Surveys show consumers are skeptical with regards to self-driving cars, but many doubts stem from lack of awareness and misinformation.
Surveys show consumers are skeptical with regards to self-driving cars, but many doubts stem from lack of awareness and misinformation. The public isn’t completely turned off to the idea of autonomy, but industry and regulators need to overcome an enormous trust barrier in order for large-scale penetration to occur.
In a recent comprehensive study from Deloitte, the consultancy shows how widespread public skepticism is. Surveying some 22,000 customers in 17 countries, Deloitte determines that viewpoints are divergent and this wide array of consumer attitudes casts doubts over how rapidly autonomous vehicles will become mainstream. The authors conclude that this environment creates uncertainty for carmakers as they race to compete with each other in this space but are unsure about the market for self-driving cars. “Automakers are under significant pressure to invest more heavily and place bigger bets with less certain returns than we have seen in this industry in several generations,” said Craig Giffi, vice chairman and U.S. automotive industry leader at Deloitte LLP and co-author of the report.
Almost three-quarters of Americans surveyed said they believe autonomous vehicles will not be safe. In other countries, feelings are similar. South Koreans are the most skeptical, with more than 80 percent expressing safety concerns.
The good news, however, is that consumers are open-minded about autonomy and willing to change their attitudes. When asked by Deloitte whether an established track record of safety for autonomous vehicles would make them more likely to ride in one, a majority of respondents in key markets, including the U.S., South Korea, China, India, and Japan, said yes. China is the market with the most enthusiasm about autonomous vehicles. Still, more than 60 percent there have negative views on safety.
For the most part, U.S. consumers are more likely to change their minds on autonomy as a result of experiences with trusted brands.
Of particular note is who consumers will trust with autonomous vehicles. The views vary broadly by country. For the most part, consumers are more likely to change their minds on autonomy as a result of experiences with trusted brands. In the U.S., traditional automakers are preferred in this case, though a majority are still skittish even with them. Deloitte’s survey says 47 percent of consumers have more confidence in the main automakers to bring the new technology to market. But the numbers are worse for Silicon Valley companies—only 20 percent of U.S. consumers say they trust these companies with self-driving cars.
In Japan, where automakers are even greater staples of the country’s economy, more than three-quarters of respondents said they’d trust traditional companies. Germany is second in that category, but far behind, with just a little over 50 percent preferring established car manufacturers. China again bucks the trend, as a majority there favors a new autonomous company to bring the technology to consumers.
As one can see from the results, consumers are skittish overall about autonomy but are willing to give the new technology a chance. Still, who they trust in the transition phase varies widely and indicates that different actors will be leading in different markets.
“Automakers and technology companies first have to earn consumers’ trust, then turn that trust into a willingness to pay for a must-have feature.”
Besides incorporating new technology into their vehicles, car companies will have to work on messaging. “Automakers and technology companies first have to earn consumers’ trust, then turn that trust into a willingness to pay for a must-have feature,” said Giffi. “Today trust is lacking. Ironically, fully autonomous vehicles are being engineered to be much safer than today’s vehicles.”
Curbing fuel demand
“The greater the number of oil-based AVs improves efficiency and so reduces oil demand.”
In a reflection of increased activity and interest among carmakers, oil giant BP incorporated autonomous vehicles into the company’s latest annual energy outlook, pointing out that changes in mobility and the transportation sector are a key uncertainty with regards to the long-term outlook for oil demand. Exploring a scenario where penetration of self-driving vehicles happens faster than expected, BP says that if 100 million autonomous cars, under the assumption that they are 25 percent more fuel efficient, are on the road by 2035, they’d cut demand by 400,000 barrels per day. That, of course, assumes the vehicles have internal combustion engines: “The greater the number of oil-based AVs improves efficiency and so reduces oil demand,” says BP.
If AVs are shared instead of owned, they’d cut fuel consumption even more. There’s no guarantee that they will in fact be shared, but the growth of services such as Uber and Lyft point to that becoming a possible trend. BP notes the importance of this development on demand: “Car-sharing on its own doesn’t affect energy demand; it increases the intensity with which vehicles are used. But if combined with new technology, such as an EV or an AV, it can act to amplify the effect of this technology.”
If the digital revolution that brings AVs is combined with the electric revolution that fosters a major shift in the automobile fleet, the impact on the global oil market is more profound.
Of course, if the digital revolution that brings AVs is combined with the electric revolution that fosters a major shift in the automobile fleet, the impact on the global oil market is more profound. Interestingly enough, in the Deloitte report, Chinese consumers are the most adamant about AVs becoming electric or hybrid. More than 50 percent of respondents there prefer self-driving vehicles to be EVs or plug-in hybrids, compared to less than a quarter in the U.S.
The Deloitte survey and BP outlook prompt more questions than they do answers about the future of AVs and transportation in general, but it’s clear that the hurdles in public opinion and trust are not insurmountable and the long-term savings will be beneficial.