Bosch finds pro-autonomous sentiment, still nerves around safety

A Bosch survey has found more than 52% of new car buyers expect to own at least one self-driving automobile in their household in the next 10 years – but that car buyers still have trust issues for self-driving technology that could cause them to hold back on making a self-driving purchase. Given that many vehicles already offer self-driving features, like advanced cruise control, and that automakers are now planning self-driving vehicles to launch in the next 3-5 years, these expectations are not surprising.

The survey reached 1,000 US based car buyers, who have purchased or leased at least one vehicle in the last 5 years, and its findings clearly support that US car buyers are expecting self-driving vehicles. Audi and Nvidia have promised a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 4 self-driving vehicle to be available to consumers by 2020. Similarly, BMW is targeting 2021 as its deadline to release its SAE Level 5 iNext vehicle.

Audi’s self-driving A8 will be powered by an off-the-shelf Nvidia SEA Level 4 autonomous driving system, which it plans for release in 2018, giving Audi two years to test before its consumer introduction in 2020. These announced releases display how advanced the development of self-driving is, and that how most of the time between now and autonomous vehicle launches will be dedicated to real world testing rather than development.

Tech companies and automakers might have initially overpromised on the launch dates for their new technologies, but now (at least) the time frames given by the likes of Audi and BMW suggest delays of anything more than a year would be unlikely. These cars are nearly ready to go, and the five-year lead times inherent in the auto industry would suggest that this is the case.

These are luxury automotive brands, that will sell self-driving at a large premium, that most will not be able to afford. However, many features of the autonomous vehicle have already been introduced, and the pace at which safety features can go from exclusively luxury to standard in most vehicles to mandatory should not be underestimated. They trickle down the product lines pretty quickly.

When it comes to consumer expectations, the Bosch survey electronic stability control (ESC), which was first introduced in the market in a 1995 Mercedes-Benz. ESC has been mandated by the National Highways and Transport Association since 2012 in new models – and by 2009, the technology had become standard for both Toyota and Ford, two of the world’s largest automakers.

However, only some 21% of car buyers could name ESC as a safety feature, showing a lack of consumer knowledge that some believe could be damaging to the introduction of autonomous vehicles if not adjusted. Kay Stepper, Bosch VP of Assistance & Automated Driving said, “the industry must help to adequately manage consumer expectations and show them the specific steps to help guard against rejection or over-acceptance of these important, life-saving technologies.”

Consumer concerns about the level of safety available in autonomous cars suggests that the automotive community still has some distance to travel, as 72% of those surveyed highlighted ‘lack of control’ and ‘safety’ as their top concerns for automated vehicles – despite the industry narrative being that these vehicles will be far safer than human drivers.

Automakers will have to prove to consumers that autonomous vehicles will be as safe as is claimed to ensure they are widely accepted. But it is worth considering that the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey found that the critical reason for an accident in 93% of collisions was human error. In light of this, consumers hardly have a good record on the safety front anyway – a fact that the automakers will begin reminding them of when their vehicles start to reach the market.

On the flip side, many of those surveyed could see some major benefits from autonomous vehicles. Some 61% believe they will reduce traffic accidents, while 55% think they will have more free time and be less stressed. Automakers have 3-5 years to address consumer concerns and cause a greater majority of consumers to consider the benefits of buying an autonomous vehicle.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has even more dramatic expectations for his company, of being able to deliver self-driving cars by 2018, but for regulators to only accept them by 2021 – a roadmap Musk gave in an interview to a Danish newspaper in 2015. Musk has been known to play fast and loose with time frames for the delivery of products in the past, to drive his teams to deliver new features ahead of competitors – something he has received flack for in the past.

Publicly announcing delivery dates ahead of those outlined by rest of the industry does seem to bolster the stock price of Tesla. Much of the current value of the Tesla stock is said to be grounded in the delivery of a new service, where Tesla car buyers will be able to generate income from their vehicles by opting into a scheme that allows the owner to send the vehicle out as a self-driving taxi – when not usually in use.

Investors have taken up unusually confident positions on the Tesla stock, that suggest they think the company will be able to deliver this service, and that customers will flock to purchase its vehicles – certifying the future revenue growth and profitability. We are not convinced that the majority of Tesla buyers will be happy to let their prized professions drive around all day and be used by strangers.

In terms of the regulatory progress in the US, senators announced in July 2017 that they planned to introduce legislation to remove regulatory roadblocks to the introduction of self-driving cars, including sorting out conflicts between state and federal rules. It shows that regulators are not far behind the development of autonomous vehicles, and will try to avoid presenting to many barriers to their introduction – contrary to longer timescale Musk is expecting.