Driverless cars: Let technology take the wheel

Almost three-quarters of US drivers are eager to replace the daily commute’s drudgery with a self-driving car and 80 per cent say they would pay extra to have a robot take the wheel, according to a survey that contradicts other recent studies.

AlixPartners said that when the 1,517 people it surveyed were presented with the attributes of self-driving cars, 73 per cent said they would want autonomous vehicles to take over all their driving. Mark Wakefield, the head of the consulting company’s automotive practice, says 90 per cent would let a driverless car handle their commute if they could occasionally take the wheel.

The results go against several recent studies showing as many as three-quarters of respondents weren’t ready to give up the wheel. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said last month that just 16 per cent of Americans would prefer to ride in an autonomous vehicle, while 46 per cent wanted nothing to do with robot cars.

Consumer acceptance is critical for carmakers and tech giants, such as Alphabet’s Google, which are investing billions in driverless cars they plan to put on the road by 2020.

“It’s worth remembering, commuting sucks,” Mr Wakefield says. “Autonomous driving increases the economic utility of the commuter and it makes their life better … They like that.”

The average urban commuter in the US wastes 42 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, according to a report last year from the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), so it’s easy to understand why driverless cars are becoming a viable option. TTI also estimates that motorway congestion costs $160 billion a year, including from lost productivity, petrol burnt while idling in traffic and additional wear and tear on vehicles.

Mr Wakefield says that that carmakers were saying, “when we put people in these cars, they adore them”. He says: “They freak out the engineers because they get so comfortable that the engineer sitting beside them has to say, ‘You may want to put your hands on the wheel’.”

q&a luxury players lead lines

Keith Naughton outlines the future for driverless cars:

When will driverless cars realistically become an option for the morning commute?

The first cars capable of talking to each other to warn of traffic hazards and keep a safe distance are hitting the road this year. Fully autonomous vehicles may be navigating cities in five to 10 years. They will hit an inflection point in 2020 when they begin arriving on roads, according to AlixPartners. By then, the market for autonomous-related components, such as systems that steer wandering cars back in their lanes or automatically navigate through stop-and-go-traffic, could surpass US$20 billion, the company says. Self-driving cars, which drive more efficiently and safely, could save $325bn by 2020 by avoiding accidents and reducing fuel costs, it says.

Who are the leading players?

Luxury lines lead: BMW is rolling out a car that can park itself, Cadillac has a model coming that drives hands-free on the motorway, while Mercedes and Audi already offer models that can pilot through a traffic jam while only asking its human minder to touch the steering wheel occasionally.

Who else is in the race?

Tech giants Google and Apple. Google, for example, is teaming up with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to develop about 100 self-driving Chrysler minivans.

What potential issues could commuters face?

The question of liability remains unanswered. When a car on autopilot causes an accident, who is at fault? Automakers also have yet to design a connected car that cannot be hacked, raising security concerns and dystopian scenarios of robot cars run amok. A recent fatal accident involving a Tesla sedan driving on autopilot was a reminder of the potential challenges ahead.

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