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Google self-driving carSurvey shows what consumers think about self-driving vehicles

By Jim Bray
July 16, 2015

A special TechnoFile report.

There's lots of buzz about self-driving vehicles and how they can either be the best or worst thing about traffic problems and road deaths - but what do real people, as opposed to the vested interests - think about the concept?

Self-driving features ultimately mean cars that - like the Google ones we hear about careening around the landscape - drive themselves with no human intervention. But the concept is already being felt in mainstream vehicles, via such features as adaptive cruise control that can brake the car to ensure you don't slam into the oaf jamming on the binders because of some perceived apparition in front of you. There are also lane departure warnings, blind spot sensors and other such aids - more, apparently, each model year. These don't drive the car for you, but they point the way toward what'll be necessary for the cars that do drive while you loaf in the back seat.

Who cares? That's the question asked of people in a new survey, "Motorists' preferences for different levels of vehicle automation," by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "Self-driving vehicles are often discussed in regard to their potential safety, energy consumption, and environmental benefits, or the existing technical challenges that must be overcome for their successful implementation," the report starts, noting that "less attention has been paid  to considering the actual level of automation (if any) that drivers desire in their vehicle."

In other words, in all this talk about how wonderful a self-driving car might be, has anyone bothered to ask the people who actually use - and buy - them?

This new, July 2015, report builds on a series of others that look into "public opinion, human factors, and safety-related issues with self-driving vehicles" and was developed to actually examine motorists' "preferences for having different levels of vehicle automation, including preferences for interacting with and overall concern about riding in self-driving vehicles."

And guess what? The number one preference for an automated vehicle is - drum roll - keep the darn self-driving stuff out of it! "When respondents were asked about which level of vehicle automation they

preferred," the report says, "the most frequent preference was for no self-driving (43.8 per cent), followed by partially self-driving (40.6 per cent), with completely self-driving being the least preferred

(15.6 per cent)." Women preferred no self-driving capability (47.6 per cent), while men were more into the concept of partial self-driving (41.2 per cent). Folks' preference for vehicle automation generally decreased as respondent age increased.

That may seem like a no brainer considering it's young people who are considered to be more into robots and such tech than oldsters, yet on the other hand, I - as someone who loves to drive - can think of many scenarios in which I'd love to just put 'er in auto mode and nod off, or read a good book. Yet I, who am also heavily into and invested in technology - find myself unwilling to trust automated vehicles.

For now, anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if the technology matures to the point where widespread mainstream self-driving cars become practical - as well as automating commercial vehicles such as transit buses and trains (a task which should be easier, since such vehicles generally stick to more limited routes than private vehicles) - but until then it seems natural to me that the only people who'd really be pushing the concept right now are either the tech companies who want to sell it or personal injury lawyers.

Anyway, it appears there's widespread mistrust of the technology among those who answered the questioners' queries.

Nearly everyone (over 96 per cent ) would want to have a steering wheel, gas and brake pedal (or controls like that) to be available in completely self-driving vehicles. Because computers never crash, right? The survey noted that there was no notable gender difference observed here, with similar percentages of females and males preferring to have "controls" on self-driving vehicles (97.4 and 95 per cent, respectively). There were no meaningful age differences here either, with each age group's angst ranging from 94.4 to 98.1 per cent.

As for how people would like to control autonomous vehicles, the preferences between a touch screen and voice recognition were divided. I can see this - the problem here isn't the interface itself, but its overall design. There are interfaces and interfaces, whether LCD screen or voice recognition, and some vehicles' simply drive me nuts - and I'm generally a pretty tech-and-interface-savvy guy, since I drive a different vehicle nearly every week. Some touch screens are so intuitive a kid could use them, some require a trip through the owners' manual to figure out - and some transfer so many functions to steering wheel-mounted controls and onscreen cascading menus that it's hard to keep your eyes on the road (though, to be fair, if the vehicle drives itself you probably don't need your eyes on the road).

Likewise, there's voice recognition that's quite intuitive and there's some whose interfaces require so many confirmations - or hoops for you to jump through - that I want to punch to robot in the dash (which isn't really fair since it's the programmers' fault, not the droid's).  Then there's the problems of owners with thick accents that confuse the robot…

These problems will probably work themselves out over time, and undoubtedly improve immeasurably.

When they get that part down pat (whoever he is) I'd kind of like to see voice systems with attitude (can you imagine the difference between prompts from a British, German, Japanese or North American car if national pride is allowed to show through?).

Anyway, women preferred voice control while men liked the touch screen. I wonder if this has anything to do with women finding voice control another thing at which to nag (no emails, please - I'm joking).

Most respondents to the survey said they'd prefer to be notified when they need to take control of a partially self-driving vehicle (no kidding!), with a combination of sound, vibration, and visual warnings. I guess they didn't ask about getting slapped with a dead fish.

Be careful what you wish for, however; in my experience, some of these sounds, vibrations and visual warnings can be a real annoyance. One of the worst offenders these days is the lane departure system, some of which vibrate the wheel when you cross a lane and some of which nearly fight you for control of the car. Granted, these are all early generations of the technology - but I still hate them.

The concern the U of Michigan folks found in this study for riding in completely self-driving vehicles are similar to those found in an earlier survey from June of last year, so it appears that - at least to date - people aren't warming up to the concept of self-driving vehicles and those pushing them are going to have to work a lot harder before the citizenry is convinced of the benefits of taking a nap in the back seat while R2D2 runs the show.

In the meantime, it appears these aren't the droids people are looking for.

Copyright 2015 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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