Skip to main content

Self-driving cars will have to pry the steering wheel from our cold, dead hands, poll says

Most Americans still deeply skeptical of fully autonomous vehicles

Gallery Photo: Inside Google's self-driving cars

Americans like the idea of self-driving cars, but are less willing to cede control of the steering wheel to a computer program, according to a new poll released today. An overwhelming majority, 80 percent, said humans should always have the option to drive themselves, while 64 percent expressed a need to be in control of their own vehicle.

Moreover, people are essentially torn between the promise of safety and the need for control: 49 percent said they prefer a safer roadway even if it means they would have less control over their vehicle, while 51 percent said wanted to stay in the driver seat, safer streets be damned.

Opinions like these will become increasingly relevant as self-driving cars become more mainstream. Right now, they are floating in limbo between hype and skepticism. Uber is offering a handful of Pittsburgh residents free rides in its self-driving cars. Ford, BMW, and Volvo say they plan to offer autonomous vehicles for sale within the next five years. But most experts predict that widespread adoption is still a decade or more away.

floating in limbo between hype and skepticism

The idea of fully autonomous cars, with no steering wheel, no pedals, and no way for a human to intervene, is also something most Americans are unwilling to embrace. One-third of respondents to the poll said they would never buy a Level 5 autonomous vehicle, where there is no option for human control, while 16 percent said they would buy one the moment they were available.

In fact, most people haven’t even heard of “autonomous vehicles,” as compared to the more easily defined “self-driving car,” the poll shows. “This is good, because we live in our own little world, where the word ‘autonomous’ is this word that everyone knows,” said Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, which commissioned the poll of 2,200 US residents. “Forty-one percent are familiar with the term, while 59 percent are not.”

Kelley Blue Book showed poll participants this short video explaining the five levels of autonomy before asking for their responses to its questions.

Level 4 autonomy, in which the car performs all the critical driving functions but the option for human intervention remains, hit the “sweet spot” for most people. “There are times that it is fun to drive a car — out in the country where you can stop or slow down to look at things,” one respondent said of Level 4 vehicles. “But for a long trip, the full autonomy would be great.”

The deeper the pollsters drilled on the varying levels of autonomy, the more confusion people expressed: a majority of participants said they felt more comfortable with Level 1 vehicles with no autonomous features than fully autonomous, Level 5 cars. “The mystery of unfamiliar territory can inhibit comfort,” Brauer said.

“for a long trip, the full autonomy would be great”

Kelley Blue Book, as a consumer resource, was interested in what type of self-driving car people would buy for themselves. But it’s unclear whether driverless cars will be purchased like traditional vehicles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk envisions a future where Tesla owners will be able to add their car to a "Tesla shared fleet" — likely an on-demand ride-hailing service that will allow the vehicle to give autonomous rides to the general public while the owner is at work or on vacation. But John Zimmer, president of the ride-hail service Lyft, argued in a recent essay that “the transition to an autonomous future will not occur primarily through individually owned cars” but through a networked fleet of shared vehicles.

Given the recent headlines around self-driving cars — Tesla’s fatal accident and Google’s various fender benders — experts in self-driving technology were pleasantly surprised by the survey’s results.

“I am pleased to see that the awareness of self-driving vehicles is high and that, generally speaking, the reception is more positive than one could have imagined after the Tesla incidents,” said Raj Rajkumar, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who collaborates with General Motors.

Rajkumar said the higher acceptance for Levels 3 and 4, which still allow human intervention, versus Level 5, which does not, is “very rational.” He added, “It is up to industry to demonstrate that the technology is reliable and safe, before the public would accept it — and buy it.”