One in five drivers would hand over the keys tomorrow if a safe, computer-operated vehicle were available, a new survey from CarInsurance.com finds -- and 90 percent would at least consider a self-driving car if cheaper insurance were part of the package.
The survey of 2,000 drivers also found that trust in the technology will be a major hurdle.
Autonomous cars, as they are known, are already here in many respects. Almost all new cars have anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. Some use distance-based cruise control to maintain separation automatically at highway speeds. Others can parallel-park themselves. Google’s fully autonomous experimental fleet has racked up millions of miles on California freeways.
But the "Jetsons" car that most of us imagine -- pushing a button and putting your feet up on the dash -- is probably decades away.
John Capp, director of global active safety electronics and innovation at General Motors, outlined the most likely scenario for Popular Mechanics magazine. Capp says a self-driving car will come a few pieces at a time and will not replace humans in the short term but will take over during instances that a human doesn't really want to drive, such as long commutes or traffic jams.
Those types of vehicle are coming, and coming fast. For example, Mercedes is equipping its 2014 S class with Stop and Go Pilot, which operates the car hands-free during traffic jams. Once the car goes over 6 mph, hands must return to the wheel.
Nissan promises an autonomous car later in the decade.
Most experts believe that completely driverless vehicles will eventually roam the streets, shuttling us around with almost zero human input. Any disagreement is mainly over timing.
Are drivers ready to not drive?
Money changes minds.
About 20 percent of drivers said they would buy a fully autonomous car if one were available, CarInsurance.com's survey found.
The follow-up question introduced the prospect of an 80 percent discount on car insurance. Thirty-four percent of respondents said described themselves as “very likely” to buy an autonomous car for a big insurance discount, and an additional 56 percent said they would consider the option. Only 10 percent ruled out a robot car.
Money is not the only factor that turns heads. A KPMG study found that drivers were much more receptive to driverless vehicles when they were promised a dedicated lane and a 50 percent cut in their commute time.
And drivers are looking forward to making better use of that commute. Asked what they will do with newly freed time, drivers chose:
- Text/talk with friends: 26 percent
- Other: 21 percent
- Read: 21 percent
- Sleep: 10 percent
- Watch movies: 8 percent
- Play games: 7 percent
- Work: 7 percent
The “Other” category was dominated by two categories of write-ins: “Enjoy the scenery” types who welcomed the new opportunity, and worriers who wrote in “watch the road” or “hold on for dear life.”
Trust issues run deep, the survey found:
- 64 percent of respondents said computers were not capable of the same quality of decision making that human drivers have.
- 75 percent of respondents said they could drive a car better than a computer.
- 75 percent would not trust a driverless car to take their children to school.
While Google has been a clear innovator and evangelist for autonomous technology, respondents said they are more inclined to trust a maker of cars than a maker of software. Asked who they would trust most to deliver autonomous-car technology, drivers said:
- Communications company such as Sprint or Verizon: 1 percent
- Consumer products company such as Apple or Samsung: 12 percent
- Software company such as Google or Microsoft: 15 percent
- Start-up automaker such as Tesla: 18 percent
- Traditional automaker such as Honda, Ford or Toyota: 54 percent
How autonomous technology will affect you
The National Highway Safety Transportation Administration says 95 percent of accidents are caused by human error.
Autonomous features could dramatically change that number. Autonomous cars don't get distracted, text or drink while driving. They have a 360-degree view of the surrounding area and never get tired. Google robotics visionary Sebastian Thrun has predicted that autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent.
As accident rates decline, insurers will be forced to lower rates. Technology consultant Chunka Mui, in a series on autonomous vehicles for Forbes magazine, reports that a large insurer recently forecast that even a 20 percent adoption of incremental driver-assist technology could reduce accident rates enough to trigger rate reductions.
Over time, as autonomous technology reaches saturation levels, car insurance will undergo a dramatic change.
"We will see a big change in the type of accidents that occur,” says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab. “Fender-benders will likely go away, but the accidents that do happen will be much more expensive. A bumper loaded with sensors and cameras is much more costly than a regular bumper."
One of the biggest unanswered questions is where liability falls when a computer-driven car crashes.
Personal injury lawyer Thomas J. Simeone says one possible scenario is that liability transfers back to the automaker. "The manufacturer of an autonomous car could be responsible for all damages caused by a malfunction -- not just those of the other vehicle,” he says. “So, whereas today we see one driver suing another, we could see both drivers seeking damages from the manufacturer due to a defect."
A 2012 Celent report predicts that liability premiums could drop 60 to 80 percent by the year 2022.
Can you get a discount now for autonomous technology?
Autonomous technology itself will not garner you car insurance discounts just yet.
"High-tech driver assist systems really haven't started to receive discounts," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst with CarInsurance.com. "The insurance companies don't have the statistics yet to show that they are reducing claims. When statistics do show a reduction in injury and collision claims, specific insurance discounts will follow."
But technologies such as driver assist can still help lower your bill, Gusner says, by doing exactly what they are designed to do -- keep you out of accidents. According to Gusner, a good driver discount could be 20 percent or more. A claims-free discount may also apply.