By Matt Hamblen

Carmakers and components producers globally have heavily invested in self-driving technology for years, but face a difficult continuing reality:

Consumers are uncomfortable with autonomous driving technology today and expect to remain leery about it in years to come.

 Only 15% of U.S. residents in a recent survey said they would feel comfortable interacting with autonomous driving technology currently. In a separate response, only 15% said they would eventually feel comfortable interacting with autonomous driving tech.

The survey, conducted by software interface design firm Myplanet, questioned 1,000 adults of all ages from all regions of the United States.  They were shown a photo of a man seated in car behind the steering wheel with his legs crossed and reading a book, obviously not engaged in actively driving.  Then they were asked whether they agreed with this statement: “I would feel comfortable interacting with this technology,” to which 6.3% said they strongly agreed and 8.5% said they agreed, a total of 14.8%.   

Also, 50.9% said they strongly disagreed with the statement, while 19.1% merely disagreed, for a total of 70% who would not feel comfortable interacting with the technology.

The results confirm earlier separate surveys going back several years on the subject and reinforce the difficult task that autonomous vehicle (AV) designers and robo-taxi service providers face in getting the public interested in the technology.

“The presentation challenge for the industry is to get people comfortable with the technology, but that’s not a comfort level that will be achieved in two years or five years,” said Myplanet CEO Jason Cottrell in a telephone interview with FierceElectronics.

“Autonomous driving is not a selling feature right now and it’s actually a detriment,” Cottrell said. “There’s going to be a need for society to get comfortable with components of the concept and hear use cases. Successful operators of autonomous services are going to need to think how to get consumers into the concept.”

Interest and investments in AVs by carmakers and robo-taxi service providers as well as companies that make chips for components could be coming from technology-focused early adopters who live in a bubble apart from mainstream consumers, he said.  The questions raised in the survey look at AV readiness for the mainstream public, not early adopters.

Cottrell said the survey results were convincing in that they detected a very low comfort level with autonomous driving by respondents (just 15%), but also a very high discomfort level, with 70% saying they would  not feel comfortable interacting with the technology.  As with earlier independent studies, the biggest fans of autonomous driving are males age 18 to 34 and the biggest discomfort levels come from women age 65 and older. The strongest support comes from people living in the west and the least support from people in the south.

“The thing that was so striking was that autonomous driving was at the bottom of 35 autonomous technologies we surveyed,” for comfort levels, he noted.  Survey respondents were most comfortable with hotel check-in kiosks, passport control kiosks, home automation, shelving and inventory robots and food delivery robots. 

By contrast, they were most uncomfortable with autonomous driving, ranked at the very bottom of 35 technologies. Robot nurse was close behind, followed by an interactive therapeutic robot, an AI targeted smart ad and and a helper robot.

“People would much rather have a wearable mechanical exoskeleton in the workplace”  than ride in a self-driving car, Cottrell added. Also, he noted that autonomous driving has been subject to heavy investment for years, yet still ranks below robot nurses that are not well understood or popular. 

In a future survey, Myplanet intends to ask about the public’s comfort level with autonomous flying drones.  There actually might be a higher comfort level with flying drones, partly because people know so little about them, he said.

“Our hypothesis is that there’s a bit of a trough of disillusionment with autonomous driving, since there relatively few proven examples,” Cottrell said. “That’s not uncommon with new tech and that may be true here.”

It hasn’t helped that there have been press reports of crashes with cars equipped with driver assistance technology, he added.

A general trend Mypilot’s survey found regarding comfort levels across all 35 autonomous technologies  is there’s greater discomfort with technologies “that hit to the core of the personal and things innately human and trust-oriented where there’s likely to be social hesistancy,” Cottrell said.

 “We believe in autonomous driving technology as a company, but we need to see the presentation of it shift and to tread carefully,” he added.  “There will be levels of autonomous driving. It might start with, ‘would you like to get in my Tesla and see the auto pilot?’

Myplanet envisions consulting with companies on the control interfaces such as touch or voice used in robo-taxis by the passengers. 

The survey’s finding of a relatively high degree of comfort with food delivery robots was bolstered by research from the Consumer Technology Association released on Wednesday. Sixty percent of respondents in a CTA survey view robotic delivery vehicles and self-driving vehicles more favorably than they did in the past.  Part of the reason for the improvement is seeing such technology used to deliver food and other essentials in San Francisco and Fairfax City, Virginia, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Steve Koening, vice president of market research at CTA during a webinar.