Consumers, Wary of Self-Driving Cars, Didn't Use to Trust Computers Either

By Auto Marketing InSites Archives
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A new Ipsos study, measuring the global public's readiness for self-driving cars, could be seen as alarming to automakers who want to market autonomous features. But if history is a guide, skepticism could quickly turn into acceptance.

The report, surveying 20,000 new car buyers from 10 countries, is the third annual Ipsos Global Mobility Navigator Syndicated Study. The market research company released some of its findings on autonomous driving earlier this month.

"The study confirms new car buyers are simply not ready to hand over the driving responsibilities to their vehicle, even for a short amount of time," said Todd Markusic, vice president of Ipsos Mobility. "A key, and possibly overlooked, revelation is that 70 percent of new car buyers simply enjoy driving. They have spent a lot of money on their vehicles and want to drive [them]. That is the feature."

Is it just me or does the logic swing both ways? That 70 percent bought cars with steering wheels, so of course, they want to drive them. But the same consumers who'd just bought an autonomous vehicle — minus pedals and steering wheel — would be eager to try out that technology. And, maybe, they'd find they didn't miss driving. Markusic did say via email, "I do think once people experience the technology, they will be impressed with it and be more willing to accept it."

Consumers originally resisted the personal computer, wondering what on earth they'd do with it. And some were actively scared of them. According to the Atlantic, in the 1980s only nerds had computers. Paul Strassman's 1985 book, Information Payoff, reports that gaining access to the arcane science of computing was seen "much more like taking up a musical instrument than following instructions [on] how to use an electrical appliance, such as a toaster." Subsets of computer anxiety included fear of breaking the thing, looking stupid, and losing power.

Charles Rubin of Personal Computing advised wary consumers back then, "If you're trying to use a personal computer or are considering using one, remember: Allow yourself to be a little ignorant for a while. Plan to spend some time learning; give the computer a chance to prove itself before you decide you can't use it; take things a step at a time; make sure you read the documentation carefully; and finally, don't forget that you're in charge, not the computer."

Ipsos' Markusic doesn't agree with the comparison to personal computing. "There was never a feature related to personal computers where you hit a button and then you didn't operate the personal computer," he told MediaVillage. True, but my point is that, with autonomy, consumers are entering a world that scares them, with benefits that aren't yet tangible.

Driving is certainly more fun than learning computer code — at least in theory. "I think people like the idea of driving in the abstract," Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research in Detroit, told MediaVillage. "If they actually consider the reality of the accumulated miles, they would probably find that it wasn't a particularly enjoyable experience. Commuting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is not fun for anyone, and it's a problem that is getting worse."But Abuelsamid doesn't fault the current public perception. "People don't understand or trust the technology yet and they probably shouldn't," he said. The fact is that the systems on cars now — such as Cadillac's Super Cruise self-driving highway feature — are cool and interesting but are representative of an industry in its infancy (like user-unfriendly computers in the 1980s). Self-driving tech isn't ready to be the focus of a major marketing push and such a campaign could backfire.


"Advanced driver-assistance systems [ADAS] are getting very good, but people still need to pay attention because lane keeping, especially, is very inconsistent. Highly automated driving is even further off from widespread adoption," Abuelsamid added. "That said, I think automated mobility services — when they are robust — will convince most people that they don't need to drive most of the time. They can reserve the actual driving for the times when they actually enjoy it."

Agreed, but it might take a while for public perception to reach that point, and for the technology to mature. Only 15 percent of survey respondents say they know "a fair amount" about self-driving cars and 10 percent have any experience with it. Given that information, it's not surprising that only 30 percent of Americans surveyed have a positive impression of autonomous mode. They're wary of something they don't yet fully understand.

Today, the Ipsos survey said only 36 percent of buyers globally would consider buying an autonomy-ready car. Only 12 percent would "definitely consider" it. But "autonomous mode" in the way people think of it — sitting in the back with your cellphone — isn't available yet, anyway.

If a fully autonomous car was available, only 6 percent of today's new car buyers would choose to purchase one, the survey said. Another analogy: Most likely, only 6 percent of horse owners would have considered switching to a horseless carriage in, say, 1898, when cars were noisy, smelly, and wholly undependable. Horses were a slow and a lot of work, but that was the devil they knew.

But then the stats get interesting. Fifty-seven percent of respondents would buy a car with an autonomous mode that can be switched on and off — assuming it didn't cost any more (a big if!). That indicates the public wants to remain in control. That's natural when technology is in transition; we want an "out," such as a route to reinstall the old desktop architecture if the new one is too confusing.

Consumers don't expect to see fully autonomous cars on the market until 2023, the survey said, and that's actually optimistic, given the considerable hurdles remaining.

The message is that consumers are not ready for full autonomy. Markusic to me: "[Original equipment manufacturers] need to understand that not everyone is going to be excited about autonomous driving, given that so many people still really enjoy driving. You can't assume that just because you offer autonomous mode, people will automatically want it."

But the same consumers appear to be open to features that help with the more tedious aspects of driving (then get turned off when not needed). Marketers should be wary, though, of over-selling technology that is very much still evolving.

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