British and American motorists are ready to embrace the safety potential of automated driving (AD). This is one of the conclusions of a major new study published in November 2022 by British automotive risk intelligence company Thatcham Research. The Trust In Automation report polled 4,000 motorists in the US and UK to gauge attitudes towards, and knowledge of, automated driving systems on both sides of the Atlantic.
The findings suggest that there remain significant hurdles to overcome, and motorists require further convincing before they comfortably make the switch to automated driving. Yet the report paints a picture of a consumer marketplace that is broadly receptive to today’s assisted driving technology, and of fertile ground for the gradual move towards fully self-driving vehicles.
This is positive news for the automotive sector. Not only does it suggest the commercial viability of a market forecast to be worth around US$200bn globally by 2030 (according to Strategic Market Research), but it also suggests consumer trust in automation, and by association the current generation of assisted driving systems, remains high.
Encouragingly, the major appeal of automated driving to consumers seems to be the perceived opportunity to improve road safety and reduce accident rates. The study revealed that 73% of UK and 81% of US respondents recognised the safety benefits of automation.
When asked what they consider the key benefits of the technology to be, the most popular answers included improving safety through removing human error (21% UK, and 21% US), improving mobility for the elderly and disabled (14% and 19%), and reducing pollution through fewer traffic jams and unnecessary acceleration/deceleration (8% and 7%). Thankfully, few drivers saw freeing up time to work (3% and 4%), entertain themselves (3% and 4%) or even sleep (2% and 3%) as advantages of automation.
The report did reveal notes of caution among consumers either side of the Atlantic. Most UK and US respondents said they would wait for the technology to mature before purchasing a self-driving car when available. It is therefore crucial the automotive sector maintains the all-important consumer trust, particularly during this delicate phase of assisted driving rollout in which the media and commentators will pounce on any accident related to AD system use and any potential confusion.
Reality check required
Not unsurprisingly, the report also reveals certain gaps in consumer knowledge. One focuses on a key challenge facing all stakeholders in automation in the move towards a self-driving future.
Some 52% of respondents—rising to 72% in the US—believe it is possible to purchase a self-driving car today. This view is more prevalent among younger age groups, where perhaps the influence of social media is more powerful. And the higher figure among US respondents is possibly due the fact that American motorists can already buy L2+ enabled vehicles, which permit an ‘eyes on the road, hands off the wheel’ driving experience.
But this perception of automation is not the current reality. Experts predict we are probably more like a generation away from achieving full automation, or at the very least several car generations. What we do have are a growing number of vehicles with AD systems that take control in certain scenarios, during which the driver must remain vigilant and be ready to take back control of the wheel.
This misconception is influenced by a handful of factors. Media hype is one of them. Consumers are constantly reading about ‘the arrival of self-driving cars’, or how the systems are ‘in testing’, which suggests the technology’s arrival is imminent.
The language used by carmakers is also in play. One of the reasons motorists believe self-driving vehicles are available to buy today is down to a misunderstanding around the capabilities of current assisted driving technology. Marketing hype, inconsistent technology naming conventions, and even the look and feel of a vehicle’s HMI may potentially give the false impression that a vehicle is capable of self-driving.
In fairness, it’s a tricky distinction to make clear—and even tougher to communicate accurately. The differences between L2, L2+ and L3 are significant, but they are also difficult for those outside auto tech labs to get their heads around and the average motorist is simply not going to engage with that level of technical detail. Yet in this nascent phase when the media will pounce on any negative stories involving AD, particularly those involving driver confusion around their responsibilities behind the wheel, it is vital today’s motorists are clear about the current technology’s capabilities.
This matters because consumer trust is key to the smooth—and safe—rollout of current technology, and the eventual uptake of self-driving cars when they arrive. Driver education and clear communication are the answer, and in this all stakeholders have a vested interest.
Happily, the interests of governments, consumers, carmakers, insurers, and automotive research centres such as Thatcham Research are aligned. Fewer misunderstandings around the capability of assisted technology means fewer accidents and related claims, fewer dents to consumer confidence, fewer negative press reports, and ultimately ensures a marketplace that is receptive to the potential of autonomous vehicles.
Collaboration is key
In this environment, collaboration between all stakeholders must be the way forward. An example of this collaborative approach can be seen in the SMMT’s guiding principles for marketing automated vehicles, published in 2021. The principles, developed and agreed by the UK government’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ AV DRiVE Group—of which Thatcham Research is part—provide an outline for responsible advertising and communication relating to automated vehicles.
The CCAV is an expert policy unit that collaborates with the automotive industry and academia, and the guidelines aim to ensure motorists receive clear, consistent and accurate information about automated vehicles and the true extent of their capabilities on the road. Not only does this build a positive pathway towards full automation, it also ensures drivers are aware of their responsibilities while driving today’s crop of assisted or partially-automated vehicles. If consumer confusion threatens to stymie the rollout of automated technology, initiatives like the SMMT’s will be crucial in helping the industry realise the huge potential of automation in terms of safety, mobility and the environment.
It is also the case that not all automation systems are created equal, with significant differences in quality from vehicle-to-vehicle. Thatcham Research believes one of the ways the industry can maintain consumer confidence is through a consumer safety rating system for automated driving, allowing motorists to make the right safety choices with a certain degree of confidence.
Together, we can underpin the safe adoption of assisted driving technology today, and pave the way for the successful rollout of automation tomorrow. Trust is everything, and we must all push in the same direction to help build and maintain it.
About the author: Matthew Avery is Chief Research Strategy Officer at Thatcham Research