SETTING THE STAGE
At January’s Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show the product that took all the headlines was not a consumer product but a self-driving car. Based on some of the stories you’d think these would be showing up in your auto showroom in 2 years. I’m here to tell you that the horse will not leave the barn that soon and there are significant issues that are not making the headlines.
To set the contrarian stage I’m going to start with excerpts from a “How We Fix It” podcast interview with Eddie Alterman, Editor-in-Chief of “Car and Driver Magazine”, the journal that manages the “Best Car of the Year” awards. He says the autonomous car is a very inelegant, very complex and a very fraught solution to the problem of texting while driving… and of information coming into the car when people should be driving”. He does sort of spin a conspiracy theory that for Google, Apple, Microsoft and other big data companies, autonomous cars are a big opportunity. Instead of keeping their eyes on the road, motorists would use their driving time to consume more digital media. So these companies will escape any liabilities in the texting while driving area.
That being said, Alterman says that he agrees that there will be a reduction in accidents but the first time a car kills someone a pedestrian, a bike rider or even a human diving another car it will make national news. It’s no accident that cars are being tested in quiet climates on open roads. The need to be tested in real winter conditions and in urban areas where potholes and bump asphalt patches are ubiquitous Also, with roughly 260 million passenger cars, SUVs and small trucks on the road on the road the small number of autonomous cars will be leaving human drivers in the dark as to their intent.
Alterman makes the argument that consumers will not necessary give up this sense of personal freedom that was the original public relations pitch off the 1950’s (see Dinah Shore Chevrolet Ad). As Editor in Chief of the premier car magazine it’s understood why he promotes self-driving but as we’ll see below, there may be something in it.
His recommendations include”
Address the risks of mixing traditional cars with self-driving vehicles on the same roadway.
Promote the use of semi-autonomous background technology to make driving safer such as cruise control, vehicle stability and lane departure warning systems.
Resist the temptation to encourage drivers to surrender control of their time behind-the-wheel.
Leslie Hook the San Francisco correspondent for the Financial Times has also taken a cautionary view. She has the personal experience of a cyclist’s interaction with an autonomous vehicle at a complicated intersection where the car froze for some time and proceeded, possibly because a human intervened. She sees five problems. First, these cars don’t play well with humans. Their stop and start performance can confuse people. Secondly trust will be hard. We trust aircraft autopilots because there are humans present. Without this many people will be wary of them.
Third the various states are trying to craft their own rules which may create problems where registration in one state may not apply in another. Fourth most tests are being done in the southwest or San Francisco where winters are mild. The test information for Pittsburgh appears to be in a large building. Lastly, the author feels that the current investments by the tech companies are fueled by cheap money which may disappear in a financial crisis.
BATTLE OF THE SURVEYS
Kelly Blue Book, the premier cost guide for new and used cars, did a comprehensive 47 page consumer preference survey in 2016. AAA published a two page fact sheet in 2018 that frankly was less so. KBB broke down the potential driving conditions into five categories including self-driving with an on-board person, a category that AAA missed. As mentioned earlier, the autopilot on an airplane has a human backup. What happens when an autonomous vehicle has to be out in a snow storm?
The KBB surveyed 2,264 people and broke them into six categories. The AAA surveyed 1,004 people and broke them in three categories. The KBB survey is just more granular, sifting the data to answer more questions such as these. Here are the two summaries.
Kelly Blue Book
The AAA survey has little to add to this.
Here is more detail from the KBB survey
The two biggest fears for autonomous cars involve software.
The sweet spot for preferred configuration is between 3 and 4. Full automation with no human drops to 13 percent. There will a lot of fearful drivers on the road Why are we surprised?
If the Highway Safety Transportation Authority is smart they’ll insist on safety belts just the way the FAA does, to make sure passengers aren’t thrown through window if the car is hit by a another one, with or without a human driver.
Just this week Gallup came out with their poll. The key findings are:
- 54% of Americans say they are unlikely to use self-driving cars
- 59% would be uncomfortable riding in self-driving cars
- 62% would be uncomfortable sharing the road with self-driving trucks
Part 2, coming up soon, will go into technical and social questions.