SAE Consumer Autonomous Driving Study Finds… Public Acceptance?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

With the realities of autonomous driving growing increasingly apparent, the Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE) decided to conduct a survey to gauge public sentiment surrounding the technology. We’ve seen these studies before, noticing a lack of consistency. While several high-profile accidents relating to autonomous (or semi-autonomous) systems have clearly shaken people’s confidence over the last two years, we’re still seeing conflicting reports — and we don’t mean minor discrepancies, either.

The SAE survey, published on Tuesday, stated that 76 percent of respondents “think a self-driving car experience is similar or superior to a human-driven experience.” However, the American Automobile Association (AAA) released a study in March claiming 71 percent of survey respondents still had serious concerns with the technology, with only 19 percent claiming they’d even consider putting a loved one in a self-driving vehicle.

That’s a complete turn-around in just over six months. Perhaps we should look at how these surveys are being conducted and the type of questions being asked, because taking the SAE Demo Days Survey at face value makes it seem as though automated driving has finally gained public acceptance.

From SAE:

SAE International today released the results of the SAE Demo Days Survey that found overwhelming public enthusiasm about self-driving cars. Based on data from nearly 1,400 participants at four SAE Demo Days events, 82 percent were initially enthusiastic for self-driving cars, with nearly 10 percent of participants reporting higher enthusiasm post-ride.

The SAE Demo Days Survey offers a unique perspective as it polled actual riders of a self-driving car and comes from SAE International, a trusted convener that provides a neutral forum for partners to advance mobility solutions. Through the SAE Demo Days program, the organization delivers an experience to help people gain awareness and hands-on understanding of self-driving cars as only six percent of participants had ridden in a self-driving car before taking part in an SAE Demo Days event.

Vagaries abound, but it seems SAE reported that only 10 percent of participants exited their self-driving journey feeling better about the experience — despite 82 percent going into the event pre-stoked on the technology — and then phrased it in a way that made it seem like a complete triumph. Fortunately, the veil was thin enough for us not to accuse SAE International of any unforgivable shenanigans. Still, it’s clearly hoping to sell everybody on the idea of autonomous driving.

“Public acceptance is vital to the future of self-driving cars. Through SAE Demo Days, we are engaging the public directly and inviting them to take a ride,” said Mark Chung, Chief Marketing Officer at SAE International, in a statement. “The demos foster informed decision-making while allowing SAE to capture insights from those who have taken a ride. The SAE Demo Days self-driving car experience spurred enthusiasm among nearly all of the riders and the experience overall is viewed by participants as comparable to or better than a human-driven experience.”

Engineers are hammers perpetually in search of a nail and autonomous driving is a railroad spike ten miles high. The challenges and opportunities here are too vast for them to ignore (these are the people that took us to the moon, after all). Perhaps we’re being too critical. We certainly didn’t subject AAA to the same level of scrutiny, but it also didn’t put up quite so many red flags.

The AAA study was also not focused primarily on the industry. While the SAE presented general acceptance findings in a release, the complete study actually goes into great detail about how its 1,400 respondents prefer their products. Do they want to buy AVs from legacy manufacturers or new market entrants? How much control are they willing to hand over to the car? When do they expect AVs to finally hit the consumer market? That’s the kind of stuff automakers would be interested in, and might help to explain SAE’s upbeat attitude.

Most of the results were mixed and not particularly revealing, however. Noteworthy exemptions included 76 percent of respondents indicating they wanted shared control with a vehicle — with 36 percent saying the car should have full control (i.e. actual autonomy) and 14 percent saying a human should always be in control. The majority (92 percent) also wanted there to be some kind of emergency stop feature implemented on all AVs. Only one percent of respondents said they had no interest in such a feature. On the subject of liability, 46 percent said self-driving mishaps should be deemed the fault of the manufacturer. Another 43 percent said owners and operators should be on the hook.

As for criticisms or fears relating to the technology, there was no such data. SAE doesn’t appear to have included any questions that might paint autonomy in a negative light. Safety was also spoken of often but rarely asked about. The closest we got in the survey was 37 percent of participants believing that the greatest benefit of self-driving cars will be their ability to reduce accidents and roadway fatalities. Though you could invert that and see it as 63 percent thinking safety might not be autonomous vehicles’ greatest strength.

[Images: SAE International]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • SunnyvaleCA SunnyvaleCA on Nov 06, 2019

    Self-driving cars would be great, sure. But why haven't we already seen lots of AI-enabled mechanical things that would be easier to implement and very much less risky and dangerous when something goes wrong? I'd expect self-driving farm tractors, fruit and vegetable pickers, and livestock tenders where a miss-hap doesn't result in a million-dollar lawsuit. How about food preparation tasks? Shelf restocking in supermarkets. How about autonomous cashiers in supermarkets instead of the annoying self-checkout that often seems to go wrong?

  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Nov 06, 2019

    Are there any documented cases of successful two-way communication between Engineers and Earthlings?

  • Ravenuer Looking forward to it!
  • Daniel J I love my mazda 6. It's getting harder and harder to drive it around where I live as municipalities fail to repair roads. SUVs are just easier to drive with all of the potholes.
  • 1995 SC On the plus side, I found a sedan I want to buy
  • Teddyc73 As I asked earlier under another article, when did "segment" or "class" become "space"? Does using that term make one feel more sophisticated? If GM's products in other segments...I mean "space" is more profitable then sedans then why shouldn't they discontinue it.
  • Robert Absolutely!!! I hate SUV's , I like the better gas milage and better ride and better handling!! Can't take a SUV 55mph into a highway exit ramp! I can in my Malibu and there's more than enough room for 5 and trunk is plenty big enough for me!
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