"If we continue to spend billions of dollars developing vehicles that drive themselves but consumers aren't ready for that technology, this will just be another illustration of a failed overlap between technology, policy and consumer interest," said Bryan Reimer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which released the study Thursday at a symposium co-sponsored by the university and the New England Motor Press Association.
MIT recently polled some 3,000 consumers and found that:
- 48% say they'll never purchase a self-driving car.
- Only 13% would feel comfortable with a fully automated vehicle.
- Top reasons cited by those who vowed to never to buy self-driving cars included "loss of control" (37%), "I don't trust it" (29%), "it will never work perfectly" (25%) and "it's unsafe" (21%).
- Interest in self-driving cars is surprisingly small among younger people, who are presumably more open to new technologies. For instance, only 14% of 16- to 24-year-olds polled would feel comfortable with a self-driving car.
- Comfort levels have actually dropped rather than risen across all age groups since MIT conducted a similar survey a year ago.
Reimer attributes the falling interest in part to a fatal accident involving a Tesla (TSLA) that had been running on auto-pilot, as well as to the recent crash of a self-driving car that Uber had been testing.
"First impressions really do matter in human psyche, [whether] our first view of a person or of a technology," he said. "Trust takes a long time to build--and declines rapidly."
The researcher added that consumers' everyday experiences with frozen computer screens or malfunctioning smartphones only add to the problem.
"If I pick up my smartphone or computer and it doesn't work perfectly up to my expectations, how am I going to trust my life to a self-driving car?" he said.
Overall, Reimer said the study shows that automakers should slow down development of self-driving cars and instead focus for a few years on partial automation that would gradually get consumers comfortable with the idea.
For instance, he said existing technologies like Traffic Jam Assist--a system from Audi (AUDVF) that can automatically steer a car in stop-and-go situations--can help pave the way for eventual consumer acceptance of self-driving vehicles.
"More limited function like [Traffic Jam Assist] would get people used to these technologies, moving the automation pipeline slowly [as] we build trust," he said.
(Disclosure: The author is a New England Motor Press Association member.)