General Motors pioneered a version in the 1950s, in the 1970s Ford engineers predicted their own version would be on the road by the year 2000, but self-driving cars have remained a science fiction dream for decades.
Now advances in technology have put companies like Google closer than ever to achieving a commercially available autonomous car, as close as five years away by some estimates.
And a significant number of consumers are ready to let go of the wheel according to two recent surveys.
Some 44 percent of respondents said they would be likely or very likely to purchase a self-driving car by 2025, according to a survey released last month by Boston Consulting Group. In a second survey, published last month by market research firm Gfk, nearly three-fourths of respondents ages 25-34 said self-driving cars were appealing. Overall, they appealed to 66 percent of survey respondents.
In both surveys, people cited a perceived increase in safety over manually operated cars as a key advantage for autonomous vehicles. Safety is the key element that makers of self-driving cars have pushed — people are responsible for the vast majority of accident, the thinking goes, so eliminating them from the equation would make roadways safer.
Lower insurance and fuel costs and more free time were also appealing.
Older drivers, the category of consumers who might benefit the most from driverless vehicles, were the least interested in the technology. Just 50 percent of survey respondents 55-64 said they were interested in the Gfk survey, while 45 percent of those 65 and up were.
BCG estimated that partially self-driving cars will hit the roads in large numbers by 2017. By 2035, BCG predicted that 12 million fully automated vehicles could be sold a year.
“Carmakers need to act now to prepare for this future. A significant new market is still theirs for the taking,” said Thomas Dauner, global leader of BCG’s Automotive practice, in a company statement.
Both surveys also revealed crucial hurdles to mass adoption self-driving cars will have to bypass first. Some of those are technological — like securing vehicles from cyberattack — or legal. But harder to overcome may be public misconceptions and resistance to the vehicles. For one, in the Gpk survey a third of people surveyed were disappointed that the still couldn’t drink alcohol while driving in a self-driving car.
For some, self-driving cars still just seem too much like bad science fiction.
A survey last fall by University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found high levels of concern about vehicle safety and equipment failure. A commercial for the Dodge Charger a few years back spelled it out: “Hands-free driving, cars that park themselves, an unmanned car driven by a search-engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.”
“Self-drive cars are, undoubtedly, going to be part of our future,” Gpk wrote on its blogs. “However before they can appear on our roads it is not just the infrastructure that must be developed and managed – it is the general public’s perceptions and expectations.”