Control, Commute Could Unlock American Acceptance of Self-Driving Cars

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CARS.COM — Could allowing motorists to seize control of autonomous vehicles be the key concession needed to drive Americans toward acceptance of the technology? According to a new survey by New York-based consulting firm AlixPartners, three-quarters of U.S. drivers said they would let a self-driving car assume all driving functions — while 80 percent would even pay extra to relinquish the wheel.

Related: Older Drivers Amenable to Safety Tech If It’ll Keep Them on the Road

Those results fly right in the face of many, if not most, other studies on the matter. In May, a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute survey reported that just less than half of Americans prefer no self-driving capability in cars, while only 16 percent prefer fully autonomous vehicles.

Speaking to AlixPartners’ automotive practice chief Mark Wakefield, Bloomberg reported that the consulting firm’s survey offered a “sweet spot” to respondents: the option of taking the wheel in an otherwise fully autonomous vehicle. Wakefield said automakers testing autonomous vehicles found that passengers took to self-driving cars surprisingly quickly and that previous surveys may have biased responses by emphasizing worst-case scenarios.

But it seems that the misery of Americans’ daily commute could trump their mistrust of ceding control to an earthbound HAL 9000. Urban-mobility data specialists at INRIX reported recently that U.S. commuters in 2015 on average burned 50 hours each sitting in traffic for a total of more than 8 billion hours — the most of any nation in the world. Los Angeles commuters had the most miserable commute, with each motorist wasting 81 hours in traffic last year.

The AlixPartners survey showed that a whopping 90 percent of respondents would let a driverless car pilot their commute so long as they could take over if they wanted.

“It’s worth remembering that commuting sucks and it has gotten worse every decade,” Wakefield told Bloomberg. “Autonomous driving increases the economic utility of the commuter and it makes their life better. When you describe what it can do, they like that.”

It’s not unprecedented for conventional wisdom on drivers’ aversion to autonomous technologies to be contradicted when respondents are shown what’s in it for them. Another recent study by insurance provider The Hartford and the MIT AgeLab demonstrated that when drivers aged 50 or older considered that advanced safety features — the building blocks of fully autonomous cars — could prolong their years behind the wheel, three-quarters were amenable to them. That’s in stark contrast to other studies illustrating a large majority of older drivers’ aversion to autonomous technologies.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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