Commentary: Autonomous Vehicles — Is the Consumer Bloom Off the Rose?

Published January 31, 2019

If automotive industry leaders thought 2018 would be the “breakthrough” year in which American consumers finally embraced autonomous vehicles (AVs), they were mistaken.

Media reports on safety-related accidents involving automobiles with driverless capabilities, or technology with self-driving capabilities—resulting in multiple deaths and injuries, with several of these crashes investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board—have taken their toll on American consumers’ confidence in AV technology.

A May 2018 American Automobile Association opinion poll found 73 percent of U.S. drivers would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, up from 63 percent in 2017. A July 2018 public opinion poll commissioned by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found 69 percent of American adults are concerned about their safety as motorists, bicyclists, or pedestrians when sharing roadways with AVs.

A July 2018 internet poll by the Brookings Institution found only 21 percent (9 percent “somewhat likely” and 12 percent “very likely”) of U.S. adults were inclined to ride in an AV, compared to 61 percent (46 percent “very unlikely” and 15 percent “somewhat unlikely”) who would not.

Not Ready Yet

Although these opinion poll results do not bode well for AVs in today’s political environment, it is necessary to place them in a technology perspective. The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a ranking scale to describe the six different levels of artificial intelligence for AVs: Level 0 (No Automation); Level 1 (Driver Assistance); Level 2 (Partial Automation); Level 3 (Conditional Automation); Level 4 (High Automation); and Level 5 (Full Automation).

Where in the AV levels of self-driving is the automotive industry today? Early in Level 2, where under certain conditions the vehicle may take over steering, braking, and acceleration but the driver is still responsible for the overall safe operation of the vehicle. Some examples of this AV technology in commercially available vehicles include Mercedes-Benz Drive Pilot, Tesla Autopilot, and Nissan ProPilot Assist.

At Level 2, AV self-driving technology is still far from Level 4, where a vehicle can be driven by a person but does not always need to be, as it can drive itself under certain circumstances. Thus, American consumers should not expect any fully self-driving vehicles (Level 4) being commercially available in the near future, although field testing and development of AV driverless technology is now underway in regulated circumstances at the state level.

Nevertheless, consumer apprehension is not only understandable given these media reports, but also to be expected. Most of today’s vehicles are at Level 1 and will have at least one vital function, such as adaptive cruise control, which the car can take over for a limited time. With Level 1 technologies introduced over the last decade, this transition has allowed for consumer adjustment and AV technology improvements.

Complex Ethical Challenges

The safety of AV vehicles is but one among many outstanding ethical, social, and environmental issues that will emerge as AV levels increase, especially to AV Level 3.

Heather M. Roff, a senior research analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, released a Brookings Institution report, “The Folly of Trolleys: Ethical Challenges and Autonomous Vehicles,” in December 2018 which illustrates ethical challenges for AV vehicles are more complex than found in the (unlikely) trolley case, where there is “one decision to make at one point in time.” (This is the choice faced by a trolley operator who will hit five people unless he or she switches tracks and hits one bystander.) As Roff, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, “From a value-sensitive design standpoint, one may consider not only the question of lethal harm to passengers or bystanders, but a myriad of values like privacy, security, trust, civil and political rights, emotional well-being, environmental sustainability, beauty, social capital, fairness, and democratic values.”

Roff sagaciously notes, “[I]t is not whether a car ought to kill one to save five [as found in the Trolley Problem], but how the introduction of the technology will shape and change the rights, lives and benefits of all those around it.”

Regulatory Uncertainty

Not surprisingly, American consumers are rarely asked their opinions on such wide-ranging, probing questions in public opinion surveys. Yet, before getting too far ahead of advanced-level AVs on American highways in the next decade, it would be prudent to heed Roff’s call for a systemic approach to adopting a new technology that has far-reaching second- and third-order ethical and sociopolitical consequences.

From a commercial standpoint, the American automotive industry is still awaiting a comprehensive safety- and liability-oriented public regulatory framework to allow AV technology to proceed to higher commercialization levels. The gradual introduction of new AV-related technology in Levels 2 and 3 over the next several years should offer adequate time to address important ethical and public policy questions systematically before the automotive industry offers commercial availability of AV Levels 4 and 5.

This systemic approach to evaluating and implementing new AV technology is not only good public policy but also a good business policy for the U.S. automotive industry. It is too early to prognosticate that the consumer bloom is permanently off the AV rose.

Thomas A. Hemphill ([email protected]) is a professor of strategy, innovation and public policy in the School of Management, University of Michigan-Flint and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. This article was originally published at