Study: Consumers want option to control autonomous cars

Michael Wayland, The Detroit News

Public acceptance of self-driving cars could hang one thing: Not completely taking away the keys from human drivers.

Ford research engineer Ghassan Atmeh, left, and supervisor Andrew Richardson "drive" an autonomous car in a demonstration on Dearborn roads.

A Future Autonomous Vehicle Driver Study commissioned by Kelley Blue Book found four out of five people believe a human driver should always have the option to drive themselves instead of having a full self-driving vehicle.

“They’re not really ready for a fully autonomous vehicle,” said Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst for the vehicle valuation and information company.

About one in four people (26 percent) would be interested in a self-driving vehicle for their next vehicle lease or purchase by 2020 as long as there’s an option for a human driver to take over. That compares to one in five (20 percent) for partial autonomy and about one in eight (13 percent) for a purely self-driving vehicle.

The study assumes all levels of autonomy will be available in the next four years. Several automakers have announced ambitions to offer self-driving vehicles in the coming years — mainly for controlled fleets such as ride-hailing or car-sharing services.

The responses are based on a scale of autonomy from level 0 for human only, to level 5 for full autonomy with no option for a human driver to take control. The vast majority of vehicles on the road today are considered level 0 and level 1 “modern vehicles,” according to the study.

“People definitely feel like level 4 (full autonomy with human control available) is the sweet spot,” Lindland said. “They want a vehicle that can drive itself, but then there’s also times they want to drive.”

The survey results call into question strategies by some automakers to offer level-3 partially automated vehicles as well as fully self-driving in the coming years.

Some automakers — most notably Tesla Motor Inc. — have launched or plan to launch what is considered partial autonomy (level three) vehicles that have the ability to keep a vehicle in its lane, drive with the speed of traffic and even change lanes with the touch of a turn signal. But a driver is still necessary to monitor in case of a system not being able to drive.

“There is definitely an opportunity to skip over level 3,” Lindland said, adding that airplanes with autopilot are still considered level 4. “Not being able to fully relax is the biggest deterrent for level 3.”

General Motors Co. plans to release its level-3 competitor to Tesla’s Autopilot system called Super Cruise in 2017. The company has said it will keep steering wheels and other human-controlled components in cars for the foreseeable future.

“We believe through an evolution we’re able to put the technology into the vehicles,” GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra told reporters ahead of the automaker’s annual shareholders meeting in June. “And it is very important that we demonstrate safety. We think that having that capability when the steering wheel and the pedals are still in the vehicle is a very good way to demonstrate and prove the safety.”

That contrasts with Ford Motor Co. The Dearborn-based automaker in August announced plans to have a fully driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals for braking and acceleration in 2021.

Going straight to a car that doesn’t need a driver, steering wheel or pedals offers bigger benefits to passengers and is more profitable, the automaker said. The cars, Ford said, would be available only for commercial applications like ride-sharing in major cities at first.

However, even current ride-share users aren’t sold on fully autonomous vehicles, according to the KBB study.

About 40 percent of current ride-sharing users said the most appealing level of self-driving vehicles would be for full autonomy with the driver able to take over. That compares to 28 percent of ride share users for full autonomy.

“Even among those ride-share users, we’re still seeing level 4 as the peak, or sweet spot,” Lindland said. “It’s just a running theme that we found.”

More familiarity with advanced automated technologies would likely increase acceptance rates: The study found 48 percent of people who own a level 2 vehicle with limited autonomy would purchase a level 5 vehicle for their next car or truck. That compares to 11 percent of those who do not own a level 2 vehicle.

The Future Autonomous Vehicle Driver Study was conducted by Culver City, California-based Vital Findings. It is based on an online survey of more than 2,200 people age 12-64 during the week of May 20.

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Twitter: @MikeWayland