All things considered, the auto industry is doing just fine. In fact, in 2017, total new vehicle sales surpassed $1 trillion. Nonetheless, automobile companies have been pulling out all the stops to be the first to develop a safe self-driving car. But they’re missing one major component: a consumer audience. According to Business Insider, Uber’s self-driving cars have been receiving routine “bullying” and harassment from pedestrians and drivers alike.
“We’ve seen people bully these cars,” said Eric Meyhofer, the head of Uber’s self-driving car unit, Advanced Technologies Group. “They feel like they can be more aggressive because we won’t take a position on it, or we’ll allow it.”
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 50% of U.S. adults think automated vehicles are more dangerous than traditional vehicles even though 77% of vehicles on the road are in need of repairs and it’s estimated that more than 20 million vehicles in 2021 will be over 25 years old. And two-thirds of adults said they wouldn’t buy a fully autonomous vehicle. The truth is most auto buyers don’t know what, exactly, they want when they first start the shopping process, and six out of 10 of them are open to considering multiple auto options. However, self-driving cars don’t seem to be a popular option.
The poll results are similar to findings in a 2018 Reuters/Ipsos poll, results in surveys by the Pew Research Center, and results from the American Automobile Association. This data, alongside the harassment of Uber’s self-driving vehicles, outlines the challenges that face automakers looking to develop autonomous vehicles.
Developers continue to make progress in creating safer self-driving vehicles. But polls like the ones mentioned above indicate that the industry’s efforts to build commercial demand and public trust of autonomous vehicles are falling behind. People are hesitant to even sell their homes right now, as the average time a home spends on the market is up to 12 months. Can we expect them to be certain about cutting edge automobile technology?
Dan Sperling, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, says that negative responses to self-driving vehicles are based on zero knowledge and zero experience. “[It’s] mostly a visceral reaction to something they read about like the 2018 Uber crash in Arizona,” Sperling said.
The 2018 Uber crash refers to an accident in March 2018 where a woman was hit and killed by a self-driving vehicle in Tempe, Arizona.
While some automakers say consumers will get more excited about self-driving cars once there’s an increase in safety features, investors aren’t so sure about the autonomous vehicle’s future.
“I’m concerned that even when we get the technology absolutely right, we will not have the business,” said Evangelos Simoudis, the managing director of Synapse Partners. Synapse Partners invests in autonomous vehicle technology startups.
Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says that many automakers aren’t actually trying to sell self-driving vehicles to consumers. “[They] want to rest us these services,” said Smith.
Some companies have already started renting. There are only 5.9 million commercial motor vehicle drivers operating in the U.S. and self-driving commercial trucks have been helping to fill the employment need. But investors are unsure whether the trucking industry’s need will be enough to keep autonomous vehicles on the market.