By Amir Nasr
February 1, 2016 at 6:00 am ET
Driverless cars aren’t far from being ready for consumer use. The next 10 years will see rollouts of different models. And yet, because of the public’s entrenched understanding of driving, it will probably take even longer until consumers are ready for cars that drive themselves.
As researchers bring the auto industry closer to creating fleets of fully autonomous vehicles, marketers will need to focus on altering cultural and legal norms that, almost without exception, go in the opposite direction.
Google, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are a few big-name companies leading the charge towards a vehicle that can drive completely on its own. But first, says Volvo spokesman Jim Nichols, carmakers will have to introduce “semi-autonomous features,” such as automatic lane changing, to develop consumer trust.
“Customers today are not ready for fully autonomous cars, and we need to get them ready over time with the semi-autonomous features,” Nichols said.
Drivers of automous cars may not need to pay attention at all times when they are behind the wheel, but the overwhelming conventional wisdom is that they should. (That means you probably shouldn’t time your nap to coincide with your ride home from work quite yet.) For driverless cars to truly take off, that has to change.
Part of the way Volvo seeks to cultivate the trust of drivers is through software in which the car always communicates with the driver about what it is going to do before it does it. If the car is going to change lanes, a dashboard display shows the car and the positions of the other cars in relation to it. The display then shows the driver where the car is going before it starts the process.
By gradually getting customers used to self-driving cars, Volvo envisions future versions that would allow a driver to completely tune out while commuting.
Along with Mercedes-Benz, Volvo is honing in on the idea of providing a luxury experience for the “driver.” Both companies have designs for concept cars, though they haven’t indicated when they will be available on the market.
Volvo’s would allow for the “driver” to recline and watch movies on a large screen in the front. Nichols says one of the key bonuses to developing autonomous cars is offering people time previously spent driving to do, well, anything else.
“The average commute in the U.S. is 26 minutes, and that’s time that’s often lost,” Nichols said in an interview. “Now you have this 26 minutes back and it’s much more time and what do you do with that time now? Really it’s a great freedom.”
Mercedes unveiled a similar luxury model at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in last year. Its model doesn’t have screens for watching movies or TV, but it does feature an option to turn your car into a small living room. The car has four rotating leather lounge chairs that can be configured to face each other.
Concept cars like these get people excited for obvious reasons. They’re probably the closest indication that we are soon to be living in a world previously only imaginable in the “Back to the Future” franchise or a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
A big reason that Mercedes-Benz and Volvo’s autonomous cars won’t be ready to buy or ride in for many years is that people just aren’t ready to cede control to their car.
Volvo conducted a poll of 10,000 consumers and found that 92 percent of them want a steering wheel in the car, and 90 percent said a driverless car should be able to pass the same test that human drivers are required to. The survey also found that 78 percent of respondents thought a driverless car would improve their commute.
Mercedes-Benz estimates their car to be on the market around 2025. “As social acceptance, legal issues, and so on play an important role in the feasibility of such cars, it is hard to give an exact estimate,” Bernhard Weidemann, Mercedes-Benz spokesman, said in an email.
It’s not just public opinion that’s a problem. The widespread use of driverless cars would leave big regulatory gaps in driving laws as we know them. Can someone text while operating a driverless car? Could you nap or read? How would drunk driving laws change?
If consumers are wary about allowing a machine to completely take over, imagine how difficult it will be for lawmakers.
The federal government is starting to draft some policy. The White House has proposed $3.9 billion on testing driverless cars between 2017 and 2027. Following that announcement, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said his committee would hold a hearing on driverless cars early in the year. “I urge the administration to work collaboratively with both Congress and private sector innovators in setting program priorities,” he said in a statement.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pledged that the agency would work with automakers and state governments to draft sample legislation for states. Foxx wants to avoid the possibility of a state-by-state patchwork of laws that could hinder the deployment, testing and use of driverless cars.
So far, eight states have passed laws regarding driverless cars. Several of these state laws simply define an “autonomous car” or establish state-sponsored studies of the burgeoning technology. But in just those states, legal ideas are beginning to diverge.
California, where Google test-drives its cars, passed a law in 2012 that requires drivers to be in the driver’s seat to monitor the driverless car’s operation and to be “capable of taking over immediate manual control” in the event of an emergency.
The District of Columbia passed a law with similar wariness in 2013. The driver must sit in the driver’s seat, and be ready to take control of the driverless car “at any moment.” The law also requires a manual override feature.
Nevada and Florida took a different direction. Nevada passed a law back in 2011 that permits the use of handheld wireless communications devices in driverless cars.
In 2012, Florida passed a law prohibiting texting (or making any electronic communication) while driving. However, the law specifically carved out an exception allowing people in a driverless car that is in autonomous mode the ability to text and use their phones. A separate law passed the same year requires a valid driver’s license to operate a driverless car.
Amir Nasr previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering tech.