The Driverless Debate: Equal Percentages of Americans See Self-Driving Cars as the "Wave of the Future" Yet Would Never Consider Purchasing One

Americans are split on whether self-driving vehicles are safe for those inside them, but majorities see them as a danger to pedestrians and fellow drivers

Mar 24, 2015, 05:00 ET from The Harris Poll

NEW YORK, March 24, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- As we are now 15 years into the millennium, many of us are no doubt wondering why we aren't yet commuting to work via flying car, a la "The Jetsons." While our cars may not be taking flight in the near future, vehicle automation is becoming increasingly prevalent, with many vehicles now equipped with features such as park-assist and adaptive cruise control to aid in everyday driving chores. Some manufacturers have even begun making forays into vehicles that can drive themselves in some capacity, with more on the way. But how do Americans feel about sharing their roads with cars which can get themselves from point A to point B without a human taking the wheel? Recent findings indicate that Americans have yet to come to a consensus on the topic.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,276 U.S. adults surveyed online between November 12 and 17, 2014. Full results of the study, including data tables, can be found here.

When provided with a brief description of self-driving vehicles and an aided list of potential feelings they may have towards the technology, Americans display a wide range of sentiments towards the subject. On one hand, there are many positive reactions to the vehicles. Over one-third (35%) say these vehicles are the future of driving and 24% think they are the designated drivers of the future. Meanwhile, almost one quarter of adults (24%) believe self-driving vehicles are something out of "The Jetsons" cartoon. Just over one-fifth of Americans (22%) say it's a technology they'd love to have and 19% say they're "insanely cool."

But it's not all sunshine and robots, with 34% saying the vehicles are an unnecessary luxury and nearly a third (32%) feeling they're something only rich people could afford. Furthermore, 30% say they're an even lazier way to drive. Then there are those who just don't know what to make of them, with 12% saying they're "confusing."

The peaks and pitfalls

Digging into the specifics, Americans see a number of benefits and drawbacks to the use of self-driving vehicles, when presented with a list of options. Likely benefits include increased fuel economy (30%), more leisure/free time (21%), and increased productivity (18%). It should also be noted, however, that one-quarter (25%) of Americans do not see any benefits to self-driving vehicles.

Looking at the drawbacks, 80% of Americans feel computer "glitches" are a likely downfall of self-driving vehicles. Added costs are a concern as well. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) feel the vehicles would cost more to service due to increased complexity and 45% say higher insurance costs or an additional "rider" are likely drawbacks. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of Americans also note personal data breaches as a likely drawback. Only 7% of adults don't see any drawbacks to self-driving vehicles.

Safety: saving grace or cause for concern?

There are many safety factors to consider when looking at self-driving vehicles. Are they safe for those inside them? What about for others on the road? Can they make mistakes? Will they prevent accidents? Americans are largely split on implications for those inside them: 48% say self-driving vehicles would be "safe" for this group and 52% say "dangerous." However, Americans edge towards a consensus when thinking of those outside the vehicles. Fifty-seven percent feel self-driving vehicles would be dangerous for other drivers in their proximity and 61% say the same for pedestrians. Matures are especially likely to worry that self-driving vehicles would be dangerous for pedestrians (73% vs. 63% Baby Boomers, 61% Gen X, & 56% Millennials) and other drivers (69% vs. 59%, 57%, & 51%).

And how do Americans rate self-driving vehicles against the average driver? Well, it depends on the activity. Americans have the most confidence when it comes to parallel parking, with 62% expecting that self-driving vehicles are less likely to make an error than human drivers; slightly fewer say the same for parking in a parking lot (56%) and driving on the highway (54%). This confidence dwindles when it comes to driving in a city; in this situation, 57% of Americans say self-driving vehicles will be more likely than the average driver to make an error.

Americans do, however, see some safety-related benefits in these vehicles in the form of fewer accidents and minimizing other driver-induced errors. Over half identify fewer accidents caused by drunk driving (53%) and distracted driving (also 53%) as likely benefits of self-driving vehicles. Half of adults (50%) feel they have a reduced likelihood of speeding tickets and 44% feel there is a reduced likelihood of rear-ending another car. Another potential benefit, seen as likely by 41%, is a reduced likelihood of running a red light.

To buy or not to buy

All things considered, what will it take before Americans will consider purchasing this new technology? Over one-fifth (22%) say they will consider buying/leasing when they believe the "bugs" have been worked out. Seventeen percent say they will consider doing so when self-driving vehicles drop to a price they think is reasonable. This is especially true of Millennials (23% vs. 15% Gen X, 13% Baby Boomers, & 13% Matures). Others say they'll wait until they read or hear positive feedback from people using them (7%), and 17% simply aren't sure what it will take for them to consider buying/leasing.

Most notably, however, a third (33%) say they will never consider buying or leasing a self-driving vehicle. Matures are more likely than all other generations to indicate this (50% vs. 36% Baby Boomers, 36% Gen X, & 22% Millennials).

"Distance drivers" may prove to be the industry's best bet

Americans who drive more than 30 miles a day may be the best target for these new-fangled vehicles for a number of reasons. They are more likely than their counterparts (those driving less than 30 miles a day) to share some positive sentiments towards self-driving vehicles, including feeling they are a technology they would love to have (27% vs. 20%) and that they're "insanely cool" (24% vs. 17%). Those who drive more are also more likely to cite increased productivity as a benefit (23% vs. 17%). Furthermore, they may be more open to buying or leasing one, as they're less likely than lower-distance drivers to say they will never consider purchasing a self-driving vehicle (28% vs. 35%, respectively).

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This Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States between November 12 and 17, 2014 among 2,276 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #18, March 24, 2015

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll

About The Harris Poll®

Begun in 1963, The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys measuring public opinion in the U.S. and is highly regarded throughout the world. The nationally representative polls, conducted primarily online, measure the knowledge, opinions, behaviors and motivations of the general public. New and trended polls on a wide variety of subjects including politics, the economy, healthcare, foreign affairs, science and technology, sports and entertainment, and lifestyles are published weekly. For more information, or to see other recent polls, visit the Harris Poll News Room.

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