Autonomy: Not So Fast

Maybe autonomy won’t come as fast as some think. But it will arrive.

With the amount of time, effort and energy that OEMs, suppliers and even companies that haven’t been associated with the auto industry until lately are putting into developing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), up to and including SAE Level 5 (the no-steering wheel and go-anywhere capability), you’d think that it is almost a foregone conclusion that it is going to be right around the next corner (and V2X technology will allow drivers to know what’s literally around that corner, even though they can’t physically see it).

But I’m not so sure that this is going to happen, at least not in the way that the multitudinous announcements, often picked up and reported with breathless excitement, might lead us to think. At least not in the U.S. That’s because of two things: money and fear.

Let’s look at the money part first. Research conducted by Strategy Analytics (strategyanalytics.com) found that while consumers in China are becoming increasingly interested in ADAS features, those in the U.S. are so-so at most, especially when it comes to paying for it.

Consider something helpful and generally benign like autonomous park assist. This is technology that has been on the market for the past few years by a number of OEMs. Ford, for example, has been offering it on an array of its vehicles, so it isn’t strictly for high-end models (although Lincoln, of course, has had it for a longer period). When asked whether they “Would pay more for” it, only 18 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed by Strategy Analytics said yes. Not exactly overwhelming support. What is more telling is that 22 percent said they “Would avoid” the technology.

Meanwhile, in China the firm found that 31 percent would pay more for the capability and only four percent would avoid it.

Now it is worth noting that there was another category that the surveyed could select, “Nice to have.” It is almost along the lines of “Here’s something that you won’t have to pay for, so what do you think of it now?” In this case, 36 percent of those surveyed in the U.S. would go for it. But when you have 22 percent avoiding it and only 18 percent willing to pay for it, somehow that ADAS system doesn’t seem like something that it makes financial sense to even offer.

When it goes to the point of “Fully Autonomous Driving,” the difference between the U.S. and Chinese markets are even more distinct. In the U.S. 16 percent would pay more for it and 40 percent who would avoid it. In China, 25 percent would pay more for it and only 12 percent would avoid it.

So now for the other shoe. Fear. AAA (aaa.com) has been tracking the way consumers feel about autonomous vehicles for some time. And according to its most recent numbers on the subject, it has found that 73 percent of American drivers would be “too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle.” This has to be taken with a considerably sized grain of salt for the simple reason that odds are good that few (perhaps those living in the greater Phoenix area) of these people have ever been in a self-driving vehicle so this fear is predicated on imagination, not reality. Of course, until there are self-driving vehicles out there in volume that people can actually experience, that fear is unlikely to evaporate, and even if half of those who are too afraid now were to change their minds, that’s still a nontrivial number who remain skeptical at best.

There are a couple other data points in the AAA study that don’t bode well. One is that when the same question was asked in late 2017 63 percent expressed that fear, so the 10-point increase is not a good thing for ADAS proponents. And what may be more unsettling is that while one might think that a cadre of AARP members might express considerable trepidation, AAA found that during the late ’17 survey 49 percent of Millennials expressed fear, in the most-recent survey that number jumped to 64 percent, the largest change of any demographic group—a change not in a technology-forward way, either.

So here we have two elements that seem to indicate that at least among American drivers full autonomy is not something that a whole lot of them would (1) pay for or (2) be comfortable in. One might make the argument that so far as paying for it goes, this could be considered in the context of the idea of paying for TV, which seemed crazy in a pre-HBO world. (And even though there are “cable cutters” in growing numbers, let’s not lose sight of the fact that they’re still paying a monthly fee to their ISPs and Netflix isn’t free, yet there are on the order of 55-million subscribers in the U.S.) And as for fear: who would have thought a few years ago people would be comfortable getting into a stranger’s car to go somewhere? Yet there are Lyft and Uber.

Maybe autonomy won’t come as fast as some think. But it will arrive.