By on November 6, 2019

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]

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7 Comments on “SAE Consumer Autonomous Driving Study Finds… Public Acceptance?...”

  • avatar

    Do I want an auto-tram to swiftly take me to my parked car after a long flight? Yes.

    Do I want to have to program my car for a quick trip to the grocery store? No.

    Do I want a capable backup when on a long cross-country road trip? Yes.

    Would I like a system to automatically prevent bad drivers from breaking basic traffic rules? Yes.

  • avatar

    I was driving a car with all the modern assist systems for about 4 hours total yesterday. I tried to keep everything on for as long as possible. Its ability to maintain a lane was worse than my own. It’s braking was later as well, and it wasn’t smooth. What’s funny is that I already know of customers that are depending on these systems too much. I’ve had several customers complain that the car is constantly asking them to put their hands on the wheel. They claim their hands are on the wheel. The system looks at steering input, so it’s obvious that they are letting the car do all the steering.

  • avatar

    Another Posky over-reach generalization of sweeping proportion based on his superior on-high take on the world – “Engineers are hammers perpetually in search of a nail”. Horse manure.

    I’m an engineer – what are your qualifications?

    I can see many problems with autonomous driving at its present level of near total incapability, and have said so here many times. So let’s avoid sweeping generalizations about engineers, shall we? They’re no more homogeneous in outlook than any other group of people.

    SAE has its own agenda, and obviously the Chief Marketing Officer tag for some dolt in the organization has to do something to earn his crust, besides selling books and standards. I’d take zero notice of any marketing man in a supposedly standards-setting organization and say that the big money is pushing them on autonomous driving, because it has billions on the line and the projects are essentially getting nowhere. Concern is mounting that the money is being p*ssed away into a black hole – so every avenue for possible acceptance is being pursued. Kind of like flinging dung at the wall to see what sticks. Give the mouth-agape crowd a quick run in an autonomous bus over a pre-planned course, and they’ll answer they like the idea, without thinking much about the level of present day capability in all conditions. It’s like handing out free ice cream – who’s going to complain if there’s only vanilla available? You’re being noticed and flattered, so you respond in the positive.

    My new vehicle decided the other day in completely clear conditions to announce that the forward sensors were obscured and that all LKAS and Smart Braking was DISABLED. This a half-mile from a cold start. I stopped, cleaned off the cover on the grille. No dice. Then I realized it was likely humidity condensation inside the car affecting the huge box of tricks mounted on the windshield behind the rearview mirror – various cameras lurk there. A few minutes warming up the windshield on full defrost as the engine warmed, and bingo, the warning went away. And hasn’t returned. I expect the system will do the same thing next time the air conditions are the same

    It’s basic crap like this showing up that has to be refined to work every time for real autonomous driving. Snow, rain, temperature, humidity, whatever. No excuses.

    Had the SAE invited dozens of actual engineers along for the free ride rather than Mr and Mrs Smith, CUV Costco run drivers by weekend, commuters by weekday, they’d have heard an earful, I’d wager. Solution? Never get yourself in a possible scrape by inviting knowledgeable people along on a demo who might rain on your parade and pre-packaged speech. I mean, we’ve all been along for a vehicle test drive with a salesman, haven’t we, and how much attention did we pay to the constant patter? None. We’re all drivers, so we’ll decide for ourselves if we like the vehicle.

  • avatar
    Mc Lean

    I’m not an industry insider. As a consumer, I find it somewhat disturbing that those responsible for developing these systems, which are so important to get right (the SAE), are in fact cheerleading the technology as they are. As noted by Conundrum above, salesmanship should not be mistaken for quality engineering. Nor should it be substituted for it.

  • avatar

    For long drives in relatively low traffic regions … fine
    For putting every Uber or Lyft driver out of a job … pretty dicy.
    For eliminating every semi driver’s job? … not gonna happen.
    Ripping the livelihood out from under millions of hard working people is simply not going to happen.
    It’s not a Luddite situation … it’s not an anti progress situation … but it will be the swelling up of a massive reaction to wholesale loss of the middle class’s being able to scratch out a living … that will surely result in a tsunami of righteous indignation inevitably resulting in slashed tires … dented driveshafts … JB Weld on sensors and in locks … and any manner of clever acts that will not be able to be stopped abated or altered by any effort of law enforcement.
    Just in cause we can get tech to do anything … does not mean tech should be allowed to do anything. The 1% will fail in this grotesque attempt to eliminate middle class jobs. Which at its core it obviously is.
    For long drives on relatively empty Hiway? Great idea. For anything else? … hmmmmmm … gotta watch out what ya hope for.

  • avatar

    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?

  • avatar

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

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