How close are self-driving vehicles to truly becoming a reality? The answer depends on who is being asked.
Automotive manufacturers may sheepishly respond with “longer than we proclaimed,” as the initial 2020-2022 predictions give way to timing that is now being held closer to the chest, according to the 2019 J.D. Power Mobility Confidence Index Study. However, this critical—albeit possibly humbling—realization brings to light the intersection of the fantasy vehicles played out on-screen in sci-fi movies and TV shows, and the complexities of the technology necessary to safely maneuver real-world vehicles on public roads in all environmental conditions.
Many consumers who had long dreamed of these fantasy vehicles have since pumped the brakes. Why? Tech failures/errors (71%), risk of vehicle being hacked (57%) and legal liability as a result of a collision (55%) are consumers’ top concerns that were uncovered in the J.D. Power study. As consumers begin to experience first-hand the integral technologies that make self-driving vehicles possible, many believe it will likely be more than a decade before they become a mainstay on public roadways.
Ultimately, one thing both groups agree on is this: Turning dream cars into real cars isn’t simple.
Effects of Real-World Elements on Self-Driving Vehicles
Automakers are put to the test when introducing safety technology in real-world situations. Sure, a vehicle will stop or swerve when it’s supposed to on a closed course, but what about on the road with other vehicles?
Recently, a Tesla Model S crash occurred when the driver had Autopilot engaged and the car hit the back of a fire truck stopped in a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. The safety system is designed to temporarily ignore stationary objects in the roadway to reduce “false alarms,” but, according to one of the many findings of the resulting National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, the fire truck was no false alarm. Even though the name of the technology may imply the vehicle will handle itself in any situation, it’s still imperative for the driver (or operator) to pay attention and take control if necessary, regardless of successful experience with the system’s performance in more ideal situations.
See also: How to Prepare for Self-Driving Cars
Consumer Trust and Acceptance Needed for Adoption of Self-Driving Vehicles
No manufacturer has a ready-for-purchase, self-driving vehicle available today. The safety technology in 2019/2020 model-year vehicles is what the industry calls Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). These include features like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane-keeping assistance systems and automatic parking, to name a few. Although truly automated features are not yet available, the driver must remain engaged regardless of what safety system is activated, even if his or her feet are off the pedals and hands are off the steering wheel. Unfortunately, consumers don’t seem to fully understand this, which will hurt future acceptance of self-driving vehicles, as crashes occur that are caused by misunderstanding of systems.
ADAS features—the building blocks for full vehicle automation—are designed to notify the driver of situations that may lead to a collision and step in if the driver fails to act. Roughly 60% of new vehicles sold today are equipped with some or all of these technologies, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says could reduce crashes and save thousands of lives.
However, many drivers have deemed some ADAS alerts so annoying or bothersome that they disable them. Nearly one-fourth (23%) of customers with lane-keeping and centering systems—one of the most prevalent safety technologies on the road today—fall into this category, with 61% sometimes disabling the system and possibly trying to avoid them on future vehicle purchases, according to the 2019 J.D. Power Tech Experience Index Study.
Consumers who are concerned about cars being able to drive themselves want more information about these complex systems, as well as more channels to learn how to use them or how and why they kick in. Dealers remain one of the main partners to educate consumers about what these technologies bring to the table and help consumers trust that systems are going to kick in when they’re supposed to, as well as understand when they’re working properly.
The Cost of Repairing Safety Technology
Automakers have developed incredibly rigorous standards of research and development, testing and manufacturing to ensure these technologies work reliably. However, the same cannot be said of the automotive service and repair shops we depend upon to safely fix the 13 million vehicles involved in a collision each year.
There is no clear way for consumers to know the ADAS features in their vehicle have been properly repaired following a collision even though they may receive a report or invoice stating this to be the case. This is another area where trust will help garner consumer adoption of self-driving vehicles.
The repair industry is still trying to understand and operationalize these very complicated and delicate technologies. For example, many ADAS features rely on cameras to help determine a vehicle’s position in relation to the road, stationary objects and moving vehicles or people. These cameras may be mounted in different areas depending on the vehicle’s make and model. Something as seemingly simple as replacing a cracked windshield could mean the difference on whether a particular safety system continues to properly engage, if the new windshield isn’t designed or calibrated for the correct model’s specifications.
Even though most consumers leave the repair shop trusting that their vehicles are functioning properly, given the wide disparity between manufacturers’ product offerings, the complexity of calibration that is required for these technologies and the repair facility’s capabilities, that trust is possibly misplaced.
See also: The Evolution in Self-Driving Vehicles
It would be beneficial for the service and repair industry, car buyers and the insurance industry as a whole for automakers to develop a uniform process and governance that all repair facilities can use to verify that any repairs for vehicles equipped with ADAS features are calibrated correctly. This would help ensure the accuracy and consistency of driver assistance technology repairs through a vehicle’s lifecycle. Unfortunately, there’s no clear indication of when something like this might be put into place, which further limits the potential for fully automated vehicles to grow beyond a niche in the automotive marketplace.
The main factor in making self-driving vehicles a reality is transparency. Keeping consumers informed about all aspects of the technology they’re investing in—why they need it, how it works, when it will activate and how to tell if it’s still functioning as intended—will go a long way to keep this journey marching forward with fewer roadblocks.