What if no-one wants a driverless car?

For the 2016 Kelley Blue Book Future Autonomous Vehicle Driver Study, it surveyed 2,264 consumers aged 12 to 64 and found a strong disconnect between those of us in the auto-tech bubble and real-world folks. Surveyors gave participants a quick briefing on the five different levels of autonomy. Six out of ten still said they knew little or nothing about autonomous vehicles – nor did even very young people think they’d live to see the day when all vehicles could drive themselves.

TU-Automotive sat down with Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, to dig into the findings and peer into the future.

A distorted view

On the one hand, the industry has put a line in the sand of 2020 for autonomy, or maybe 2021. Brauer doesn’t think that the line will keep moving out in time; it’s more a question of how we define autonomy. “It’s very likely there will be some expression of autonomous driving in five to seven years,” he said. Instead of pilotless Ubers chauffeuring people around, Brauer foresees “snippets of autonomy” – some of them appearing in 2017. College campuses, office parks and other constrained environments will be ideal hosts for early implementations.

At the same time that fully autonomous driving will creep slowly into being, some in the industry are feeding the hype. Brauer points to Tesla’s recent announcement that all new cars will be autopilot-ready, even as German regulators have demanded that it stop using that term.

Brauer says: “The ongoing thing that worries me is somebody extending too far into full autonomous mode when they shouldn’t, for example, the Tesla crash in Florida. People may be making assumptions about capabilities that are not really there and, therefore, not paying attention to driving.”

At Tesla’s press conference announcing the new Autopilot-ready hardware, CEO Elon Musk reportedly said that the company would not consider itself liable for crashes that were not design-related. Figuring out who, or what, was at fault in the crash of a vehicle in autonomous mode or with ADAS will be a big challenge, Brauer said.

For example, if someone is driving a car with automatic emergency braking and sees a potential collision, should they allow the car’s system to handle the situation or apply the brakes themselves? “The very nature of an accident is not having enough time to decide how to react,” Brauer says. The driver could be blamed if they did take control, or if they didn’t. “There are still big questions to be ironed out.”


While those early-adopter Tesla drivers gleefully see how long they can keep their hands off the wheel, non-enthusiast consumers remain mystified by the whole concept, as highlighted in the survey. Even those that understand it are torn between the need for safety and the desire for control, Brauer noted.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly preferred Level Four autonomy, where a human still had the option of taking control of the car. Almost 10% vowed they would never buy a fully autonomous car while 40% wanted to keep driving information private, even if that made the roads less efficient.

However, those who’ve experienced some of the benefits, who have driven cars with at least two semi-autonomous functions like adaptive cruise control or lane centring, found full autonomy more appealing.

Not a decision point

But there’s no evidence that consumers will hold off on buying a new car until they can get one that drives itself, according to Brauer. Kelley Blue Book expects approximately 17M new cars to be sold this year – down a bit from 2015 but still a respectable number.

In fact, it doesn’t seem that ADAS features are a selling point for today’s models. “The average consumer doesn’t give serious consideration to ADAS when researching a car,” he says. “Luxury consumers are probably more aware of the options.”

Neither do advanced driver-safety systems add to resale value, he said, because those features aren’t apparent when dealers look at the VIN. “The guys at Manheim don’t have time to dig into all the different packages and features – the auctions are a big decider of resale value.”

While thinks the idea that Millennials don’t want cars is a myth, the availability of mobility options including car sharing, ride hailing and bicycle sharing could slightly reduce car sales. “Getting more options means that there could some niche elements of the adult population that might not need a car.”

Security threat

To Brauer, the car-hacking issue should be the biggest concern of automakers, no matter where they sit on the journey to autonomy. Autonomous driving is a technology issue, he pointed out.

“At some point, we will come up with the necessary sensor arrays, the processing power and the mapping capabilities,” he says. “We can check these off. What you can’t check off is, we’ll never get hacked.”

Hacking is a concern in every industry and it will be the same for the connected-car sector, he foresees. “Once there is a huge percentage of cars that are computer-controlled, that is what makes something desirable to hackers.”

The scenarios are frightening: 80 cars suddenly making a hard right turn on a bridge, for just one example. Says Brauer: “That is what I find more disturbing than anything else about the transition to autonomy. I don’t know if we’ll get there in terms of security.”

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