Kelley Blue Book, the vehicle-buying guide, recently surveyed Americans to gauge their attitudes toward autonomous cars. First, though, it had to tell them what an autonomous vehicle is.
Even as tech companies and auto makers make bold plans to put fully self-driving cars on the road within five years and the Obama administration rushes to craft regulations for such a future, the survey of more than 2,200 people found that consumers are rather clueless about it all. The results released Wednesday underscore challenges for implementing a technology that promises to change the fabric of daily life.
Six of 10 people surveyed said they knew little or nothing about autonomous vehicles. Only 41% of those surveyed were familiar with the term “autonomous vehicles” and many—especially baby boomers—didn’t think they’d live to see a world where all vehicles are fully self-driving.
“That really sets the level of what we all have to keep in mind,” Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an interview, referring to the respondents’ lack of familiarity. “People don’t see this technology nearly as realistically or optimistically as people in the industry do…A lot of people think that it’s like Jetsons stuff and they have no reason to believe this technology is as close as it probably really is in the real world.”
Companies from Ford Motor Co., which helped put the masses into automobiles beginning a century ago, to Uber Technologies Inc., a San Francisco startup that allows users to hail rides through a smartphones app, are planning for a world of self-driving cars. Ford says it expects to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road in five years, while Uber began experimenting with self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh this month.
The confusion among survey respondents could stem from the variety of terms used to describe the technology. Respondents were much more familiar with the terms “self-driving” and “driverless” than with “autonomous.”
“Broadly, the public has been really confused about what automation means, about the technologies and applications, and the business cases and the timelines,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina and expert in the burgeoning field of autonomous-car public policy.
Today’s profusion of terminology for autonomous vehicles is reminiscent of the automotive business more than 100 years ago, when the term for automobile was in flux as customers considered what was known as the “horseless carriage,” “motor wagon” and “motor vehicle,” according to Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He noted an 1895 article in the London Chronicle lamenting that a name hadn’t been “found” for the newfangled contraptions; the writer suggested “motor car.”
Adding to the confusion are companies, such as Tesla Motors Inc., that market features, such as auto steering and braking, with words such as “autopilot.” Mercedes-Benz pulled television ads that described its new E-Class sedan as a “self-driving car from a very self-driven company” after complaints that its advance lane change and active braking technology didn’t, in fact, make the car self-driving.
While the Kelley Blue Book survey found some confusion about the technology, it also reaffirmed what other surveys have found: People are open to the idea of self-driving cars, especially to transport people who have been drinking or become infirm with age.
“The bottom line is that these things take a while to sort out,” Nunberg said. “It’s highly likely that some new terms will emerge. At this stage of the computer revolution, after all, we were still calling them mechanical brains.”