Manufacturers know it will take time for consumers to grow comfortable with the idea of driverless cars. People are wary of ceding all control to a vehicle, and therefore some of the features that allow the driver to completely ignore the task of driving won’t be available for some time.
New Morning Consult polling data backs up the marketers’ suspicions. Americans aren’t ready to ride in cars that completely drive themselves. In the poll, 43 percent of registered voters said autonomous cars are not safe. About one-third (32 percent) said they are safe, but that’s not much more than the 25 percent who said they didn’t know or didn’t care.
Voters were similarly unsure if they would ride in a driverless car. Fifty-one percent said they would not, and the other half said they would (25 percent) or didn’t know or care (24 percent).
Perhaps not surprisingly, younger voters are much more accepting of driverless cars than their older counterparts. They are more willing than older people to ride in self-driving cars and more likely to say they believe they are safe.
Men and women also have differences of opinion about autonomous cars. Regarding their safety, half as many women (21 percent) as men (44 percent) said they are safe. When asked if they would ride in a driverless car, 36 percent of men said yes, while only 16 percent of women said yes.
The poll found that the older the voter, the less safe they found autonomous cars. Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 were most likely to say self-driving cars were safe (45 percent). After that, the numbers decreased. Thirty-seven percent of 30- to 44-year-olds said they were safe, followed by 27 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, 23 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds, and 25 percent of voters 65 years and older.
Morning Consult’s data also hinted that people are unlikely to change their minds any time soon. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) said they are unlikely to buy or lease a car with self-driving features within the next 10 years. Only 23 percent said they were likely to buy such a car, and 13 percent said they didn’t know.
More male voters (32 percent) said they are likely to buy or lease an autonomous car than women (16 percent). Seventy-one percent of women said they’re unlikely to buy or lease a car, compared to 54 percent of men.
Predictably, the youngest voters (18- to 29-year-olds) were the most likely to say they would buy or lease an autonomous car (38 percent). Going up the age brackets, 29 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds, 20 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, 16 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds, and just 12 percent of those 65 years or older agreed.
A large part of the allure of driverless cars is that they could free up time currently spent driving. Manufacturers say people in self-driving cars could read, put on a tie, text, email, watch TV, sleep or get home after a night of drinking.
Yet Morning Consult’s polling shows that respondents aren’t comfortable with the idea of people doing most these things in a car quite yet, even if the car drives by itself.
Majorities of voters said they found it unacceptable for a rider in a driverless car to text or email, read, watch movies or TV, be drunk or sleep. The same patterns between male and female voters and voters of varying age groups came up in these responses as well. Women are much less likely than men to approve of any activity other than watching the road in a self-driving car.
For text and email, 36 percent of respondents said it would be acceptable for a driverless car rider/driver to do it, and 53 percent said it wouldn’t be acceptable. For reading, 30 percent said it would be acceptable, and 58 percent said it would be unacceptable. For watching TV or movies, 29 percent said it would be O.K., while 59 percent disagreed.
Only 15 percent of voters said it would be alright to be drunk behind the wheel of an autonomous car, and 74 percent said it would be unacceptable. And finally, 16 percent of respondents said it would be acceptable for someone to sleep while operating an autonomous car, while 73 percent said sleeping would not be O.K.
Car manufacturers are trying to ease customers into autonomous cars by introducing “semi-autonomous” features that emphasize the driver is still in control even if all he or she is doing is watching the computer do the work. To change the public’s perception of driverless cars, manufacturers say, they must first change cultural norms.
The poll responses reflected the current cultural acceptance of these activities in a human-driven car. For example, almost half of them (45 percent) said it would be acceptable for a rider to talk on the phone while riding in an autonomous car, by far the highest response rate of all the activities the poll asked about.
People are used to drivers talking on the phone, even if they don’t like it. Car companies have offered Bluetooth capabilities precisely so that drivers can minimize the dangers of talking on the phone while driving. With semi-autonomous features like automatic lane changing, automakers are hoping to replicate that cultural shift regarding other activities.
Manufacturers will mostly be battling concerns about safety. The poll showed that 76 percent of voters are worried about driverless cars operating on the same roads as cars driven by humans. When asked broadly about road safety, 80 percent said they were concerned. Likewise, 80 percent of respondents said they were concerned about glitches in an autonomous car’s software.
The poll was conducted from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, 2016, among a national sample of 1,869 registered voters. Results from the full survey have a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.