How the Public Really Feels About Autonomous Driving Right Now

So, self-driving car companies have some work to do. Both in the technology and PR departments. 

According to a recent survey by CarGurus, Inc. (CARG) -- which went public in October -- consumers are still quite leery of the new technology. In their study, they found that 79% of car owners are not excited about self-driving cars with almost 85% saying that they "will not or probably will not" own one in the next five years. The figure drops to 59% in the next 10 years.

Still, this isn't exactly comforting news when you consider that billions of dollars are being poured into the space at the moment. Whether it's tech companies like Nvidia Corporation (NVDA) or Intel Corporation (INTC) , or even Toyota Motors (TM) and Ford Motor Co (F) .

But we also have to remember who the average car-driver is here.

It's not the person researching autonomous driving technologies, Lidar applications, safety data points and the learning speed of autonomous driving systems through the help of neural networks and deep-learning. Generally speaking it's everyday drivers who read about an Uber self-driving car hitting and killing a pedestrian or a Tesla Inc (TSLA) accident while Autopilot is engaged.

For the most part, we don't read or hear about the more than one million people who die in auto accidents every year. In fact, I just had this conversation with a friend of mine I hadn't seen in a while and we got into the conversation about autonomous cars.

"All I ever hear about are the accidents -- they seem dangerous," he said. On Twitter (TWTR) Moments, Facebook (FB) feeds and Snapchat (SNAP) Stories, that is what pops up because that's what the media is covering and that's what gets traction among readers. That's what people share or talk about with their friends and family. 

What doesn't get front-page coverage are the billions of test miles Waymo, the self-driving division of Alphabet (GOOGL) (GOOG) , has gone through. Or the technology that's quickly teaching autonomous driving systems to handle seemingly every scenario it could ever encounter on the road. The same systems that will take us from Level 2 autonomous driving with adaptive cruise control and lane assist to Level 4 and Level 5 fully autonomous rides much faster than many consumers seem to realize.

And really, how would they know?

Ironically, the thing autonomous driving bulls were most excited about was the same thing that autonomous driving bears were most concerned about: Safety. That's something everyone in the industry is trying to address right now. 

Who Will Win the Autonomous Driving Race

The funniest statistic in the CarGurus survey came from this question: Which company do you trust the most to develop self-driving cars?

Answer: None

I got a great kick out of that, which garnered more than one-quarter of responses at 27%. The second most popular answer was Tesla, with 24%, followed by Toyota, General Motors Co (GM) and Waymo at 9%, 6% and 5%, respectively.

That's interesting, too, given how much negative press Tesla's Autopilot has garnered lately. But perhaps consumers overlook that point and see Tesla for what it is: A revolutionary electric car company. Albeit, one that struggles with profitability and production efficiency, but that's another matter.

Like any new technology or change of way, the public is going to be skeptical and they're going to shy away from it at first. Will hopping in Waymo's self-driving taxis later this year help any? How about Ford or GM's robo-taxi services, which could start a slow rollout and testing phase next year?

The facts are pretty simple when it comes to self-driving cars: They will be safer and more efficient than human drivers. In that sense, I think it will become a question of "how long until" rather "will consumers ever" trust autonomous driving.

While that answer seems like an easy conclusion for someone who follows autonomous driving pretty closely, the question of who will win the race is less obvious.

These 5 Autonomous Driving Stocks Are Flashing Buy Signals

Nvidia is still one favorite, given that its technology can both power and handle autonomous driving features for a number of different automakers. Waymo is making great progress too, but it's unclear if a licensing modeling will be the driver to its success or the robo-taxi model. In regards to the latter it will have to compete with GM, F, Uber and a number of others.

In that sense, the track is still wide open, but there are a few early leaders.

Nvidia and Alphabet are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS member club. Want to be alerted before Jim Cramer buys or sells AAPL or GOOGL? Learn more now.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author had no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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