3 crucial stats reveal the uncertain future of self-driving cars

3 crucial stats reveal the uncertain future of self-driving cars
The interior of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle
Source: Ted S. Warren/AP
The interior of a Tesla Model X 75D semi-autonomous electric vehicle
Source: Ted S. Warren/AP

Self-driving cars are here. Major manufacturers have announced plans to test their models in United States cities like Detroit and Phoenix in 2017, and in other countries such as China and Sweden. Some have estimated that as many as 10 million automated vehicles will be on roads around the world by 2020.

But a recent survey from the research firm INRIX suggests a potential roadblock: Many potential consumers are concerned about road safety and data privacy. More than 5,000 people with an average age in the early 40s were surveyed across the U.S., Italy, Germany, the U.K. and France. Though many expressed interest in self-driving cars, a few key findings point to a future where autonomous vehicle technology may be ahead of culture.

"It's a catch-22 type of thing," Brandon Schoettle, a project manager at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said. "[People] … want the vehicles, but they're also really kind of concerned. You're just not sure until you get in one and start to experience what it's really like."

Here are some insights from the report:

1. One-third of people surveyed don't trust anyone with their privacy.

There are obviously potential dangers to self-driving cars — especially if car manufacturers fail to protect passengers' data or collect information that identifies them. Americans and Europeans might be very worried about a future when someone could hack cars to find out where we're going and stalk us, for example. But there are demographic caveats to those fears.

"Kind of the ongoing theme in this is familiarity. If you own a connected car today, you're more likely to trust someone with your data," said Bob Pishue, a senior economist at INRIX. "Also, that kind of rings true to with the kind of millennial age group or generation. They're more familiar with technology and the benefits of technology, and privacy or their data doesn't seem to be as much of a concern."

A new connected car is unveiled by Chinese carmaker Geely is pictured in Berlin on Oct. 20, 2016.
Source: Odd Andersen/Getty Images

Connected cars may be some kind of gateway drug to autonomous vehicles, but they're already putting us in the throes of the privacy debate. Connected cars don't drive themselves, but they have internet access that helps feed drivers information about things like upcoming traffic or icy roads. If you didn't know that kind of vehicle is called a "connected car," don't worry — neither did more than 50% of people surveyed by INRIX. Essentially, they provide communication technology that soon may be legally required in models, thanks to a 2016 proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"You have the traditional stuff that most people are worried about today, like internet security," Schoettle said. "I don't want someone to be able to get my credit card numbers if I'm shopping on Amazon in my car. It's not just where you're going, but what you're doing and what you're looking at on your phone in the car."

"I don't want someone to be able to get my credit card numbers if I'm shopping on Amazon in my car."

Google and other major tech giants investing in self-driving vehicles are probably going to want user data, Schoettle said. Consumers and manufacturers will likely have to come to a compromise on privacy — a "happy medium" — as they did with the internet.

"But, of course, that requires the trust of government or tech companies to not actually track you or do any of these things," he said.

2. 71% of drivers believe self-driving cars will be "safe or safer" than today's cars.

That level of trust could be in the technology itself, or in those who test vehicles and decide that they're safe for everyday roads.

"Driverless cars just don't work if they're not safe," Pishue said. "The public will not accept [them]."

Last year, a driver was killed in Florida during an accident in his 2015 Tesla Motors Model S — marking the first casualty in an autonomous vehicle. At the time, the driver was using the car's autopilot feature, a realization that spurred an investigation and sparked safety concerns around the U.S. Regardless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that the accident happened without a safety defect, and it seems that public opinion has mostly recovered.

Photo provided by the Tempe Police Department shows an Uber self-driving SUV that flipped on its side in a collision in Tempe, Arizona, in March 2017.
Source: Uncredited/AP

"They need to get it pretty close [to perfect] if they want to sell it to the public," Schoettle said. He estimates that it will be another five to 10 years before self-driving cars become commercially available to individual consumers.

"[They need] to be good enough where you can say, 'OK, anybody can come use these vehicles without a 500-page instruction manual on what you can and can't do.'"

Google co-founder Sergey Brin shows a display inside one of Google's self-driving cars to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in June 2016.
Source: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

3. Only 25% of people surveyed would "likely or definitely" buy a self-driving car.

Though the INRIX survey didn't ask participants why they would (or wouldn't) buy a car, Pishue speculates that enough people are still worried about safety that it's deterring self-driving car ownership. Plus, younger generations are less likely to own a car, autonomous or not.

"People's perception of safety is critical to purchasing or trusting an autonomous vehicle," he said. "And I think the other [possibility] is that people are starting to look at transportation as a service, as opposed to traditional car ownership, and so they probably see themselves using a rideshare aspect of autonomous vehicles as opposed to actually owning one."

Unsurprisingly, younger Americans are the most open to the idea of a self-driving car.

Younger demographics are the most likely to believe that autonomous vehicles will be safe, according to the INRIX report, and Americans under 45 were much more likely to trust tech giants to build them.

A sign marks a pickup point for the Uber car service at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.
Source: Seth Wenig/AP

"There's a big age effect when it comes to this technology, and young vehicle users are really kind of in the best position to start using [self-driving cars]," Schoettle said. That's likely because they're already used to giving up control to rideshares or public transportation, since millennials own far fewer cars than older generations.

"All of the media coverage that has happened recently hasn't changed how people feel much. They're kind of hesitant."

Generally, public opinion may not be changing very quickly. For three years now, Schoettle has conducted surveys on how people feel about self-driving cars, and he's found that opinions haven't changed significantly between 2014 and 2016.

"All of the media coverage that has happened recently hasn't changed how people feel much," he said. "They're kind of hesitant. Giving up control is a big psychological issue behind what's happening here with people."