It’s Not Just Tech That’s Holding Back Autonomous Vehicles

Widespread adoption has cultural barriers, too.

Self-Driving Cars
Mallory Short/Getty Images

Based on the endless stream of media coverage surrounding self-driving cars, you'd assume our robo-chauffeurs are minutes away from pulling into our driveways. But like any other new technology, you have to parse the possible from the probable, and in the case of AVs—just in sight, but still largely out of reach—the coming reality will be shaped not just by technological forces, but cultural ones.

The latest evidence comes courtesy of a study by Kelly Blue Book that found six out of 10 people admitted to knowing "little or nothing" about autonomous cars. What's more, respondents felt less comfortable as the level of autonomy increased.

This shouldn't come as a shock to anyone with a cousin in Pennsyltucky. Sure, the self-driving future can't come soon enough for well-to-do commuters and traffic-plagued urban dwellers, but the rest of the country is responding with a collective shrug.

And well they should. Talk to any futurist or urban planner with a fresh degree, and they'll regale you with past predictions of Megacities—hordes of tightly-packed humanity with unfettered access to multi-modal transportation that would whisk them door-to-door in any fashion they fancy. But it's 2016, and we're no closer to that vision than we were 30 years ago. We might be able to imagine the future, but our track record when it comes to specific predictions coming to pass is awful. So let's talk near-term.

DIFFERENT NEEDS

Most everyone agrees that the commercial AV applications are coming first, in the next five to 10 years, and almost exclusively in major cities. Think Uber and Lyft, FedEx and Amazon—basically, the machines that will move physical goods and people through dense urban environments like New York, London, and Beijing.

"In cities, the swap is cleaner," says Michael Ramsey, an auto analyst at Gartner Inc., so anything outside of major metro areas would only include a "small introduction of commercial delivery vehicles operating autonomously."

But that small introduction "will be negligible," he adds.

This makes sense. Without the volume or infrastructure to support it, fleets of AVs just aren't feasible when the up-front cost is so high, the service side untested, and the business model still a theory. And that's before you get into the cultural issues.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

KBB's research might have shown that overall interest in AV tech is low, but that's primarily for people that have the cash to buy a car right now. Look at younger generations—who may never have the desire, need, or money for a vehicle of their own—and, predictably, they're all on board the self-driving-car-train.

Not only do nearly 70 percent of the survey's youngest respondents expect that they'll see fully autonomous vehicles in their lifetime, but nearly half have an interest in the technology, compared to just one percent of Baby Boomers.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that younger people have a better understanding of a new technology. They're more open to new ideas, willing to take risks, and, in the case of autonomous tech, well, car crashes are the number one killer of their age group, so a bit more interest in a possible solution makes sense. But the only way those generations will benefit from the potential of mass adoption of AVs is if they head into the urban centers. So where does that leave suburban/rural mom/dad?

THE NEXT FIVE YEARS

In addition to KBB's study, research firm Strategy Analytics has also seen a "cooling" in AV interest from the general public in its most recent surveys, and adds that masses of self-driving cars hitting roads in the next five years with everyday commuters behind the wheel is, well, ambitious.

"Despite Ford's recent press release talking of 'high volume' L4 vehicles in [2021] we certainly do not see this as high volume in the F-150 sense," says Ian Riches, SA's director of global automotive. "Expect to see the roll-out to be city-by-city, with volumes initially more in the thousands than hundreds of thousands."

That tracks with most realistic automaker's AV plans, with a focus on dense, urban areas, and the kind of highway cruising capabilities that are already available. And while five years may seem like a lifetime for the addled malcontents of Silicon Valley, that estimate sounds about right for automakers attempting to bring completely new vehicles to market using technologies that might not exist yet.

And Ford’s perennial best seller—the F-150 pickup truck—is a good case study of what realistic, common sense AV adoption will look like for most people in the next decade.

"Someone in rural Nebraska—they'll still want their F-150," says Riches. "That F-150 may come with some highly automated features when on a highway, but it probably won't be able drive them home from a bar after a night out."