Would You Buy a Driverless Car?

Autonomous cars are coming soon, but are consumers ready?

By Tom Risen

Companies like Google and Tesla are rapidly developing self-driving cars while major automakers like Nissan are following close behind, aiming to use computer power to end traffic jams, accidents and excess pollution.

But while the race to create the next big thing is helping to fuel this competition, it’s not clear if customers will have the drive to buy robotic vehicles once U.S. roads are fully opened to them.

Google’s driverless car team showcased their progress this week during a live stream broadcast from San Francisco, explaining they are close to having a system as efficient as a computer but with humanlike abilities to spot cues like hand signals and avoid accidents. During the event, Google co-founder Sergey Brin listed ending congested traffic and preventing accidents as among “the big challenges of our time.” And while self-driving vehicles could help reach those goals, he stressed humans will stay involved to ensure safe driving.

“We are not going to see human drivers go away anytime soon,” Brin said.

Google has been developing its self-driving car technology since 2009, building on years of research in academia and the work of organizations like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Since then, the company’s driverless cars have gotten into 16 accidents without injuries, including 12 incidents in which they were rear-ended by other vehicles. Engineers are using car features involving things like radar, lasers and cameras to reduce the likelihood of the computer or another driver causing an accident, said Chris Urmson, head of Google’s driverless car program.

The computerized cars will have to stay alert: There were an estimated 9.9 million vehicles involved in crashes reported to police during 2013, according to the latest data processed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“We tried to make the car as paranoid as possible,” Urmson said, citing “diabolical tests” devised by engineers to test-drive any traffic scenario.

That type of advanced technology is poised to become widely used in the upcoming generation of smart cars. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has said his company’s vehicles also will soon have limited self-driving capabilities on highways, and that his company will be prepared to offer fully automated vehicles in three years.

If this design momentum continues, driverless cars could account for 10 percent of global vehicle sales by 2035, a report by the Boston Consulting Group predicts. A recent analysis from the firm showed 44 percent of surveyed U.S. consumers would consider buying a fully autonomous vehicle within 10 years, while 55 percent would consider buying a partially self-driving car. Around 20 percent surveyed said they would be willing to pay an extra $4,000 or more for a car with extensive driverless technology.

Not all recent advances in vehicles, however, have made a huge splash with Americans: Registrations for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles accounted for only a 0.8 percent market share in the U.S. during the first quarter of this year, research firm IHS Automotive reported in July.

And despite Nissan and Audi being among the major automakers preparing self-driving options for their vehicles, both the car industry and U.S. lawmakers expect regulations will not be created to broadly allow autonomous driving on U.S. roads before at least the end of the decade. States including California and Florida, meanwhile, have passed legislation allowing limited access to roads for driverless cars.

Still, while it may be too early to accurately gauge whether people want a robot car driving them around, consumers certainly could be drawn to their benefits, whether that means greater fuel efficiency or simply a safer driving experience, says Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

A reduction in stress from spending less time minding the steering wheel in traffic could also be a huge draw, Carlson says. Indeed, Google engineers said Tuesday that test-drivers in California who borrowed the self-driving cars found the improved travel experience gave them more extra time in their schedules.

“There are a variety of benefits and the appeal for any individual will be different than it is for another consumer,” Carlson says.

With so many automakers considering building a self-driving car, it is likely that Google will choose to partner with a major auto firm and develop software rather than build an entire car for everyday consumers itself, says Jordan Edelson, a software developer and founder of Appetizer Mobile, a digital app development and consulting company.

Google already designs Android software for major automakers like General Motors, and its failed purchase of smartphone maker Motorola Mobility will lead it to think twice about whether it can effectively build both cars and software, Edelson says.

“Google is going to have to partner up to build a vehicle,” he says.

During this week’s live stream, Susan Shaheen, co-director of the University of California-Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, reiterated that even if the science is ready now, consumers will likely have to wait a few more years. Noting that more cities and states will have to open their roads to the vehicles, she paraphrased science fiction writer William Gibson by saying, “The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed.”

“It’s not going to be evenly distributed for a long time,” she said.

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