Billions are being invested in unwanted driverless cars

By Brian Lesko, Dan Sherman

Brian Lesko and Dan Sherman hate the idea of driverless cars, but for very different reasons.

Lesko, 46, a business-development executive in Atlanta, doesn't trust a robot to keep him out of harm's way. "It scares the bejeebers out of me," he says.

Sherman, 21, a mechanical-engineering student at the University of Minnesota trusts the technology and sees these vehicles eventually taking over the road. But he dreads the change because his passion is working on cars to make them faster.

"It's something I've loved to do my entire life and it's kind of on its way out," he says. "That's the sad truth."

The driverless revolution is racing forward, as inventors overcome technical challenges such as navigating at night and regulators craft new rules. Yet the rush to robot cars faces a big roadblock: People aren't ready to give up the wheel.

Recent surveys by J.D. Power, consulting company EY, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Canadian Automobile Association, researcher Kelley Blue Book and auto supplier Robert Bosch all show that half to three-quarters of respondents don't want anything to do with these models.

"Technologically, we will be ready for automated driving within this decade," said Kay Stepper, a vice president and head of the automated driving unit at Bosch, which supplies components to the world's leading manufacturers. "But it will take well into the next decade to convince consumers."

Elon Musk. Photo / Supplied
Elon Musk. Photo / Supplied

Automakers and tech giants including Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit have high hopes for a rapid rollout of autonomous vehicles, which they say will radically reduce traffic deaths and cure congestion in big cities.

Google, which announced plans on Tuesday to expand its test fleet with 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, predicts people will be tooling around in robot models by 2020. Boston Consulting Group says the market for autonomous technology will grow to $42 billion by 2025, and self-driving cars may account for a quarter of global sales by 2035.

All of this depends on people buying something they don't currently want. In the Kelley Blue Book study, 75 percent of the 2,076 people surveyed said they don't think they'll ever own a self-driving car.

The driverless revolution is racing forward, as inventors overcome technical challenges such as navigating at night and regulators craft new rules.

In the EY study, just 40 percent could imagine engaging the autopilot, a feature already available on Tesla's sport utility vehicle and sedan and coming soon on models from Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and Cadillac.

In a recently released survey, J.D. Power found that just 23 percent of Baby Boomers would trust self-driving technology. Acceptance improves with younger cohorts, but it's not overwhelming.

Less than half of Gen Xers (41 percent) would trust robot cars, while 56 percent of Gen Y and 55 percent of Gen Z are comfortable with the concept.

"It's a little overwhelming for most people," said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive and transportation mobility at EY and a former engineer at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. "For certain generations who like to drive, that is going to be difficult to give up."

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The biggest obstacle is fear. Consumers who've endured computer crashes as part of their everyday existence are wary of trusting software to keep them safe.

"We're putting a machine -- a robot on four wheels -- in control of driving us down the road," Stepper said. "Their main concern is that the technology could fail at any point in time. And then what is going to happen? It's this big unknown."

Experience will assuage those apprehensions. But experience is hard to come by right now: Only engineers are testing cars that require no input from humans.

Consumers are getting their first exposure through semi-autonomous features such as automatic brakes, systems that steer a drifting car back into its lane and adaptive cruise control that operates the brake and accelerator to stay a set distance from vehicles ahead.

Luxury makers such as Mercedes and Audi soon will introduce traffic-jam assist that takes over in stop-and-go situations.

Relinquishing complete control is a much greater leap. Drivers' willingness to allow an autopilot to steer their car improves to 66 percent from 40 percent if they have the option of taking over the wheel in an emergency, based on the EY study.

But safety regulators blame human error for more than 90 percent of crashes, so it's actually not best to override the robot in a stressful situation, according to Schondorf.

"There might be a reason the driverless car is doing something that you don't even understand because you can't see what the cameras and sensors see," Schondorf said. "If you take control, that could be the thing that harms you."

Still, humans will need to feel they're part of the process. Bosch's Stepper recommends outfitting autonomous autos with multiple screens that tell drivers in advance which decisions the master computer is making and what route the car is taking.

Mitsubishi Electric Corp. employee demonstrates the company's self-driving vehicle in Japan. Photo / Bloomberg.
Mitsubishi Electric Corp. employee demonstrates the company's self-driving vehicle in Japan. Photo / Bloomberg.

These could be supplemented with audible explanations of actions, akin to station announcements a commuter might hear on a train.

First, though, consumers will need to try out robot cars in a safe environment. And that will require the government and companies to provide test drives. Government authorities also could create autonomous highway lanes, protected from other traffic, to help inspire confidence.

In Europe, tests already are under way, including automated vans that take passengers around a fixed course in urban areas and tourist destinations.

Trust "is a big issue that will go away as people become more experienced with the technology," said Johanna Zmud, senior research scientist with the Texas A&M institute.

Engineering student Sherman, who has studied autonomous sensors and software, understands better than most how driverless cars will make roads safer. But he laments that soulless machines won't make them more fun.

"I'm going to have to find some way to cope," Sherman said. "I hope there will still be communities of people like me who like to control the vehicle. But we might not be able to drive that car on the street."

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