“Confused” UK Drivers Believe They Can Buy A Fully Autonomous Car Today

Thatcham Research has released findings from its Trust in Automation consumer study, revealing just over half of UK drivers think they can buy a fully autonomous car today, despite the fact that only assisted driving systems which require driver support are available to purchase.

“With more than half of the UK public believing that autonomous driving is here today, the perception is racing ahead of the reality,” said Matthew Avery, Chief Strategic Research Officer at Thatcham Research. “This demonstrates just how much work needs to be done to set realistic consumer expectations of the first vehicles offering limited self-driving functionality, when they do become available. Put simply, the benefits of automation will not be delivered if people don’t fully understand its limitations.”

The false impression regarding the current availability of self-driving technology was found to be more prevalent in younger age groups (77 per cent of 17 to 24-year-olds) than it was amongst those aged 55-plus (41 per cent).

The Trust in Automation study also reveals that 73 per cent of UK motorists recognise the benefits of emerging automated driving technology.

When asked what they consider the key benefits of the technology to be, most said improving safety through removing human error (21 per cent), followed by improving mobility for the elderly and disabled (14 per cent) and reducing pollution through fewer traffic jams and unnecessary acceleration / deceleration (eight per cent). Few drivers saw freeing up time to work (three per cent), entertaining themselves (three per cent) or sleep (two per cent) as advantages to automation.

“Drivers are beginning to recognise that automation can deliver significant societal benefit in terms of safety, mobility, and sustainability,” said Avery. “However, with safety being such a high priority for drivers, accidents that do occur will be scrutinised under the media microscope, quickly eroding consumer confidence.

“The industry must be cautious with the language employed to sell automation and drivers must be made aware of the limitations of systems, a small number of which are already on sale and in use in Germany with ALKS [automated lane-keeping systems] fitted. This is vital, not only during the early stages of adoption, but also as we move towards fuller levels of automation.”

The survey found that 76 per cent of drivers would keep their eyes on the road when the first cars with self-driving capabilities like ALKS were made available to them, despite respondents being told that the technology would make this unnecessary.

“This suggests that although safety is seen by many to be a key benefit of automation, trust and confidence needs to be nurtured over time,” said Avery.

Seventy-six per cent of drivers said they would not totally discount the idea of buying a vehicle with self-driving capability, but the majority are keen to see the technology prove itself before they give it the green light. Responses included:

  • 44 per cent of respondents said they would wait for the technology to mature before purchasing a self-driving car when available
  • 16 per cent of respondents said they would purchase a vehicle with self-driving technology, but only if it comes with a car they already intended to buy
  • four per cent of respondents said they will purchase a car with self-driving capability as soon as possible
  • 24 per cent of respondents said they would completely avoid buying a car with self-driving capability

“With the majority of drivers stating that they intend to keep a watching brief on how the technology behaves on the roads, it’s vital that all industry stakeholders come together to instil trust in automation by ensuring motorists have a firm grasp of their legal obligations and the performance limitations of systems,” said Avery.

Steve Gooding, Director of RAC Foundation, said the research provides valuable insights for policymakers keen to usher in the start of automated driving.

“Given all the hype surrounding automated car technology, particularly coverage of autonomous cars and taxis operating in the US, it isn’t surprising that some people think self-driving cars are already available on the UK market.

“The most important point that this research highlights is the need to ensure drivers understand the limits of automated options when they do first appear on UK roads, particularly where the system requires the driver to stand ready to re-take control,” said Gooding.

Jon Dye, Chair of the Automated Driving Insurer Group (ADIG) and Director of Underwriting at QBE Insurance, said the research highlights the need for safe deployment of self-driving vehicles that drivers (or ‘users in charge’ in the future) have a clear understanding of a vehicle’s capabilities, and therefore their obligations, regarding safe usage.

“In addition to education and collaboration across industry sectors, a key element will be the sharing of data and the transparency of what each specific vehicle is capable of at a point in time. With some models likely to have the self-driving technology as optional, or as an over the air update meaning it would be possible to change a vehicle’s capabilities overnight, it’s imperative the driver has a full and clear understanding of the vehicle’s limitations post-update and that they are adequately protected by purchasing an appropriate insurance product,” said Dye.